Motorcycles Rev Up Noise Fears In National Parks

fromKUOW

Summertime means motorcycles are on the roads — and many of the best roads snake through our National Parks. Officials say motorcycles are a major contributor to noise pollution in the Parks. Find more environmental stories at EarthFix.

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Millions of Americans will travel to national parks this summer and surround themselves with sounds of birds, waterfalls and motorcycles. Motorcycles are one of the largest contributors to noise pollution in the parks and the park service is starting to listen in.

From member station KUOW in Seattle, Ashley Ahearn tells us more.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: Here's the sound we're talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLES REVVING)

AHEARN: That's a 2010 Harley Davidson Street Glide. Bikes like this can be loud enough to set off nearby car alarms. The park service has been getting complaints about motorcycle noise from citizens and park superintendants around the country.

Karen Trevino heads the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division for the National Park Service in Fort Collins, Colorado. Bike noise wasn't really on Trevino's radar until she had a personal experience. She and her son were walking outside the visitor center at Rocky Mountain National Park. Two motorcyclists were sitting on their bikes idling nearby.

KAREN TREVINO: And one of them winked at the other and thought it would be pretty funny. He throttled a couple of times pretty hard, which sent my son - I swear he must have jumped three feet sideways. And, you know, he was only three so, of course, he started crying and he was really upset. And I think it was probably about that point I realized, you know, maybe I should take some of these complaints from people more seriously.

AHEARN: Trevino and her team are now recording audio at more than 70 national parks around the country. They're trying to get a handle on just how noise polluted the parks are. They found that motorcycles can sometimes be heard up to 18 miles away. That noise can make it harder for animals to hear predators or listen for prey. Elk and songbirds have trouble finding mates. Trevino says that while there are plenty of blind vertebrates, there aren't any deaf ones.

TREVINO: And from evolutionary biology, that screams volumes that wildlife depend more, even, on their ears than they do on their eyes for survival.

AHEARN: Karen, I have to tell you, I ride a motorcycle.

TREVINO: Oh, actually, that's great. You know, and I'm glad you told me that. It actually gives me an opportunity to make a very important point, which is the largest problem comes from a very small number of motorcycles and those are the very large bikes that have modified pipes.

AHEARN: A good place to test Karen Trevino's point is at Mt. Rainier National Park. There's a popular biker bar not too far from the park entrance.

DICK BABCOCK: Well, they say rock and roll is noise pollution. I call that bull (beep).

AHEARN: There, I met Dick Babcock. He rode his Harley over to where my bike was parked to do a little experiment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE STARTING)

AHEARN: All right. So that's my 2012 Triumph Bonneville.

BABCOCK: It sounds like a Singer sewing machine.

(LAUGHTER)

AHEARN: Hey. Now we're going to hear Dick's.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE STARTING)

BABCOCK: To me, that's not an obnoxious level of sound at an idle. Yeah. People can hear it run or whatever. If I pick it up a little bit...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYLE ENGINE)

BABCOCK: You can make it obnoxious, but you don't need to. But maybe you're up here in the woods and the deer are all sleeping. That's OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE)

BABCOCK: Oh, yours is still running.

AHEARN: Babcock is one of those bikers who put after-market pipes on his bike to make it louder and more powerful. Those parts aren't illegal, even if the level of noise they create can be. States across the country regulate motorcycle noise differently. Half the states in the U.S. don't have noise limits for motorcycles at all. And right now, neither do the national parks, says Karen Trevino.

TREVINO: Well, a lot of people outside the park service and maybe even a few within in the park service might like to see us take more draconian action. We are not there yet.

AHEARN: Trevino says the park service is hesitant to limit anyone's access. For now, they're still gathering information. So, no tickets or regulations in national parks anytime soon. What they are doing is partnering with motorcycle associations to ask riders to stay in smaller groups, not accelerate excessively and respect park quiet hours. Whether riders cooperate is another question.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINES)

AHEARN: For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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