Eavesdropping on America's National Parks For four years, the National Park Service has been gathering natural sound in dozens of parks across the country. The idea is to protect visitors -- and wildlife -- from unwelcome noise.
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Eavesdropping on America's National Parks

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Eavesdropping on America's National Parks

Eavesdropping on America's National Parks

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Yesterday we told you about efforts to measure peace and quiet in the Grand Canyon. It's the only national park with a mandate to restore natural sound. Well, the Park Service is gathering natural sound in dozens of parks across the country. The idea is to protect visitors and wildlife from unwelcome noise. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

(Soundbite of music)

TED ROBBINS reporting:

I'm driving into Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona. It's probably the way most people are visiting America's national parks this summer: in a car, air conditioner on, radio or CD playing. Well...

(Soundbite of music being turned off)

ROBBINS: ...Karen Travinio says we're missing something.

(Soundbite of wildlife)

Ms. KAREN TRAVINIO (Natural Sounds Program, US Park Service): Close your eyes and open your ears and listen to the sounds and get a sense for yourself of the splendor and the beauty.

ROBBINS: Karen Travinio is head of the Park Service's Natural Sounds Program, which for four years has been collecting sounds like these:

(Soundbite of wildlife)

ROBBINS: ...wolves and ravens in Yellowstone...

(Soundbite of songbirds)

ROBBINS: ...songbirds in Yukon-charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska...

(Soundbite of water running)

ROBBINS: ...a stream in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, all recorded using remote microphones. So far sound has been recorded in about 20 of the country's 388 national parks. The goal, though, is not to preserve natural sound in recordings but to have a baseline from which to preserve it in the wild.

Ms. TRAVINIO: What we are doing right now is trying to set up a nationwide acoustic-monitoring system throughout all national parks, much like we do with air and water currently.

ROBBINS: That's right, they're monitoring for noise pollution because the natural soundscape is a resource for visitors who repeatedly say in park surveys that they value it and for other species. Listen to an airplane flying over Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming while an elk on the ground bugles for a mate.

(Soundbite of airplane and elk call)

Ms. TRAVINIO: There are a lot of species of wildlife that are dependent upon the ability to hear sound, either to find food or avoid being someone else's food; to find a mate or to propagate; find shelter or safe nesting grounds.

ROBBINS: Airplanes are a disruption in many parks; so are boats or, in Yellowstone in winter, snowmobiles.

(Soundbite of snowmobiles)

ROBBINS: Because of noise and air pollution, the Park Service has greatly restricted snowmobile tours in Yellowstone. Tour operators like Al Elvina(ph) now use fewer, cleaner and quieter machines.

Mr. AL ELVINA (Tour Operator): As far as noise is concerned, there's mufflers on these machines that are almost like a Subaru automobile as far as that's concerned. As they say, they're about 35 percent more expensive type machine, but they do solve a lot of the problems that people had issues with.

ROBBINS: The Park Service says it tries to strike a balance between natural quiet and visitor activities. But at some parks sounds like this are considered appropriate.

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. WILLIAM HORNCLOUD: (Singing in Native language)

ROBBINS: That's William Horncloud singing a Sioux rabbit song at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska.

(Soundbite of Civil War battle re-enactment)

ROBBINS: That's a Civil War battle re-enactment at Manassas Battlefield National Park in Virginia.

(Soundbite of Civil War battle re-enactment)

Ms. TRAVINIO: It's a noise that I would consider appropriate in a national battlefield. And I think that from a visitor standpoint, there's a pretty high expectation that that's the type of sound that you would hear.

ROBBINS: So what's appropriate depends on the purpose of the park. But what do you think Karen Travinio has discovered is the biggest source of inappropriate sound? Loud visitors? Airplane tours? Nope.

Ms. TRAVINIO: Most sounds come from Park Service operations. So whether it's a laundry ...(unintelligible) or a jackhammer from some road construction or building a visitors center...

ROBBINS: Travinio says the Park Service is just starting to realize it needs to manage even its own sound. Awareness is the first goal of the Natural Sounds Program, awareness that people come to national parks not just to see the beauty but to hear it, too.

(Soundbite of elk call)

ROBBINS: Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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