The Sounds of Wilderness

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act, which has helped protect more than 100 million acres (about 5% of the total acreage of the United States) from human development. Passage of the Act was a hard-fought battle, taking 8 years and many, many revisions. It has been amended numerous times, both to include new Wilderness Areas and clarify what Wilderness means. Currently, Wilderness Areas are administered by the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, through the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The idea of preserving land as wilderness had its origins with conservationist Aldo Leopold (who was in turn, influenced by Henry David Thoreau and others), who envisioned wild areas, free from the obvious impact of humans, where natural processes went unimpeded. These areas would be far from roads, where the only access is on foot or horseback.  They would be refuges for the city- and town-weary psyche; a place to get back to a simpler way of being, even if only for a day or three.

Display at Leopold overlook

Display at Leopold overlook, Gila National Forest

 “Who benefits from wilderness? Well, humans for sure, in values that include solitude, recreational opportunities, the genesis of clean water and air, benchmarks for scientific inquiry, revenue for local economies, and so on. As Americans, these lands are your wild legacy and mine–regardless of which state claims them. Designated wilderness–like our national parks–is another grand, American idea.”1

Wilderness has had trouble living up to its ideal. Development has crept in around the edges. Cattle grazing, backpacking, and hunting are allowed in most wilderness areas, and all have had their impacts. Managers have had trouble deciding what management actions are appropriate for Wilderness Areas: should wildfires be extinguished? What about if they are human-caused? Should exotic, invasive species be removed? What about exotic game fish that were intentionally introduced? How much foot and horse traffic is too much?  Should predators be controlled to increase big game numbers for hunters?

The Wilderness Act influenced, or was influenced by, numerous other pieces of legislation, including the General Mining Act (1872), Multiple Use, Sustained Yield Act (1960), the Clean Air Act (1963), the Clean Water Act (1948), the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968), National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Endangered Species Act (1973), National Forest Management Act (1976), and several others.2  One law that should have direct connections, but doesn’t, is the Noise Control and Abatement Act (NCAA) of 1972.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

“Inadequately controlled noise presents a growing danger to the health and welfare of the Nation’s population, particularly in urban areas. The major sources of noise include transportation vehicles and equipment, machinery, appliances, and other products in commerce. The Noise Control Act of 1972 establishes a national policy to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and welfare. The Act also serves to (1) establish a means for effective coordination of Federal research and activities in noise control; (2) authorize the establishment of Federal noise emission standards for products distributed in commerce; and (3) provide information to the public respecting the noise emission and noise reduction characteristics of such products.”3

The Act was defunded not long after it was created, during the early years of the Reagan administration which opted to turn administration and enforcement over to the states. Few states have taken up the cause, although many municipalities have noise restrictions on the books. The Act still exists, setting standards for transportation and construction and low-noise-emission products, but it has no funding.

Since the NCAA was passed, research has continued to document the negative effects of noise on human and wildlife health. Exposure to loud noise not only damages our hearing, but exposure to chronic noise increases stress levels, with subsequent increases in high blood pressure, heart attacks, and violent behavior.  Wildlife is also affected, showing reduced reproductive rates, changes in vocalization patterns, and abandonment of habitats.  Of the Federal agencies involved in the National Wilderness Preservation System, only the National Park Service has seriously considered the impacts of noise on visitors and wildlife, through their Natural Sounds and Night Skies program, which was established in 2000.

“Noise impacts the acoustic environment much like smog impacts the visual environment; because it obscures the listening horizon for both visitors and wildlife. Places of deep quiet are most vulnerable to noise. Therefore, wildlife in remote wilderness areas and park visitors who journey to these quiet places are likely to be especially sensitive to noise.”4

A number of national parks have set up acoustic monitoring programs to try to reduce noise impacts. They are also working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on impacts of airplane noise for air tour operators.5

As the NPS has recognized, aviation noise has significant impacts on visitor enjoyment of the parks and the behavior of wildlife. These impacts also extend to Wilderness Areas. Most Wilderness Areas in the US are subject to frequent overflights of commercial and military aircraft. I’ve been in several Wilderness Areas in the west where low-flying military aircraft have not only disturbed the wild soundscape, but they’ve blasted by at noises exceeding hearing-damaging levels, frightening humans and wild animals alike.

We go to the wilderness to experience wild nature. Where the water and air are clean and the sounds free of machines. The sounds of aircraft disturb this experience. Commercial aircraft are quieter than ever, but there are more of them. Military aircraft, on the other hand, seem to be getting noisier, with the new F-35 fighter plane 2-4 times louder than the current F-15 and F-16 aircraft. In most Wilderness Areas, it’s rare to get an airplane-free interlude of more than 10 minutes, and in some areas, the sound of aircraft is nearly constant. It’s time for managers to start managing for quiet and natural soundscapes, and start working with the FAA on overflight patterns to preserve the health and wild character of our Wilderness Areas.

“It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may. Long before the noises of mankind, there were only the sounds of the natural world. Our ears evolved perfectly tuned to hear these sounds – sounds that far exceed the range of human speech or even our most ambitious musical performances: a passing breeze that indicates a weather change, the first birdsongs of spring heralding a regreening of the land and a return to growth and prosperity, an approaching storm promising relief from drought, and the shifting tide reminding us of the celestial ballet. All of these experiences connect us back to the land and our evolutionary past.”6

The following recording was made in the Alta Toquima Wilderness in central Nevada in 2013.    It was in a peaceful mountain meadow, with birds singing and flies buzzing against the backdrop of a rushing stream and trembling aspens.  The original recording is 32 minutes long, and includes 3 aircraft overflights.  There are no commercial airports within a hundred miles.

Alta Toquima Wilderness, July 4, 2013


Shadow in the Alta Toquima

Alta Toquima Wilderness, central Nevada

For a nice podcast about the history of the Wilderness Act, click here.

For a podcast describing the health effects of noise pollution, click here.




2 http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/legisoverview.


4  http://www.nature.nps.gov/sound/assets/docs/NSP_standard_brochure_final_10_1_08.pdf.

5 http://www.nature.nps.gov/sound/

6 Hempton and Grossman. 2009. One square inch of silence.

Recording made with Sony PCM-M10.

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