Peace and Quiet Is Getting Harder to Find in America's Wild Areas

Every year for the past four years, I’ve fled the endless cacophony of life in Los Angeles for the pristine quiet of the Sequoia National Forest. Rarely are two worlds more different. And yet, with each year that has passed, I’ve noticed what seems to be a growing rumble of trucks thundering through the park and the din from the thousands of yearly visitors, which left me wondering: Is life in the Sequoias getting louder?

It was just a hunch. But it turns out that hunch might have some merit.

A study conducted by a team of researchers at Colorado State University published last month in the journal Science indicates that anthropogenic noise pollution is very much on the increase in the nation’s parks, national forests, monuments and designated wilderness areas.

They found that background noise caused by human activities like road and air traffic, development, logging, mining and oil and gas extraction has more than doubled in some 63 percent of protected lands. In 21 percent of these areas, the noise created by humans has increased ten-fold.

“Wilderness areas are protected areas,” said Rachel Buxton, an ecologist at Colorado State University, and one of the study’s co-authors. “Despite that, they are not being adequately protected against noise pollution.”

It took the researchers over 15 years to conduct the study, which looked at 492 separate sites. And their findings come with all sorts of implications for wildlife and visitors alike.

Some 14 percent of critical habitats belonging to endangered species have experienced a ten-fold increase in noise pollution, impacting the ability for animals to hear mating calls and approaching predators, warn experts. This, at a time when the nation’s biodiversity has continued to decline “despite the expansion of the [protected area] network in the past few decades,” the study points out.

In 2015, for example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that noise pollution from human activity disrupts potentially fragile sage grouse habitats. “Noise changes animal behavior,” said Jesse Barber, an ecologist at Boise State University, about another potential impact—that alterations in animal behavior disturbs seed dispersal.

What’s more, as the volume of anthropogenic noise increases, the ability for the humans to detect birdsong decreases markedly. Noise exceedances of 10 decibels or more results in a 90 percent decrease in the distance over which a birdcall can be detected by humans, the study found.

Curiously, locally controlled lands saw a greater increase in anthropogenic noise pollution as compared to areas under federal authority – a trend put down to their closer proximity to urban sprawls.  

The National Park Service is looking to tackle the problem through measures like quiet pavement technology and shuttle services. But some fear that these efforts will lose their bite alongside some of the Trump administration’s proposed inroads into the nation’s protected lands.

In April, the president signed an executive order to review designations of national monuments created since 1996 and larger than 100,000 acres, for example. At the Gunnison National Forest in western Colorado, the Trump administration is rallying behind plans to massively expand operations at the West Elk coal mine.

“Noise pollution is certainly one impact from opening up protected areas to things like road construction and mining,” said Ted Zukoski, a staff attorney with Earthjustice. “And in a lot of ways, we’re only just beginning to understand our impact on the environment from noise pollution.”


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