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Environment: The Sound of Silence

Karen Treviño, director of the National Park Service's Fort Collins-based Natural Sounds Program, is on a mission to restore our wild soundscapes.

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Click here to listen to the sounds the Natural Sounds Program aims to protect.

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On the reedy banks of Riverbend Ponds in Fort Collins, a team of scientists from the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds Program huddles over a digital device that networks an MP3 recorder, a microphone wrapped in a black windscreen, and several new sound meters. As the scientists calibrate the sound meters, they note that the noise near the ponds is nearly 40 decibels less than it was at the roadside, a half-mile up the dusty gravel path. Karen Treviño, the program manager of the NSP, looks across the calm waters at the geese who frequent the nature area. “You get a little bit of a respite here,” she says.

A little bit of respite—but perhaps not enough. The problem at Riverbend Ponds, manmade “noise intrusions,” is the same problem that plagues our national parks, and Treviño’s been charged with preserving these natural and cultural soundscapes: the chirping birds and burbling creeks of Glacier National Park, for example, or the peaceful silence at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. From her base in Fort Collins, Treviño dispatches acoustic biologists into the wild with high-tech recording units, and uses the data they collect to advise Park Service officials, shaping policy for how things sound in parks ranging from the Everglades to Yellowstone to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Treviño calls natural soundscapes a treasure, a resource like clean air and water. “People go to the parks, in part anyway, to get away from the clamor of everyday life,” she says. Noise pollution, however, is barely defined and, as a result, grossly underregulated. Treviño hopes that the data she and her team collect—such as “sound inventories” from the parks—will help the government create programs that maintain the integrity of the parks’ natural soundscapes.

In fact, the Natural Sounds Program’s science may help settle one of the biggest questions facing the Park Service in 2008. By the end of this year, Treviño hopes she will see how her input has shaped a plan put together by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Park Service that aims to “substantially restore natural quiet” over the Grand Canyon, one of the nation’s most frequently visited parks.

The 47-year-old Treviño is an unlikely environmentalist. The daughter of a lighting manufacturer and a “conservative card-carrying Republican” father, Treviño says the family didn’t spend a lot of time communing with nature when she was growing up. At Michigan State University she studied communications and political science, and she interned in the Michigan Statehouse for a Republican legislator. After graduating, Treviño enrolled in the New England School of Law in Boston, where she chose to focus on reinsurance law, tooling up for a suits-and-briefcases world of arcane intricacy and executive affidavits. “I would come out of meetings and my head would hurt,” she admits. But she thrived on the complexities, a true wonk.

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Like many who find a calling, Treviño came to environmentalism through an epiphany—really a pair of epiphanies, both of which occurred during an epic of youthful exuberance across Europe, Africa, and Asia while on leave from law school. Camped out on the deck of a tanker on the Aegean Sea, for the cheap passage and cheap beer, Treviño dutifully collected the night’s bottles only to see a crew member dump them overboard at dawn. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, you can’t do that!'” She has a photograph of her second epiphany, a lone cheetah surrounded by five white safari vans idling in the heat for a better look. “I captured the terror in his eyes,” she says of the besieged cat.

When she got back to the States, Treviño transferred to the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, D.C., and switched her emphasis to environmental law. After earning her degree, she followed her newfound conscience to a succession of environmental jobs: an advocacy post at the World Wildlife Fund, a desk in the D.C. office of a private Alaskan law firm that worked with native communities, and an assignment as senior counselor to the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks in the Department of the Interior.

When she took the Natural Sounds post in the fall of 2003, the program, which had been founded just three years earlier, was still in startup mode, and Treviño worked to fine-tune the focus. She pushed for more data and more exacting protocols, because the existing metrics from the FAA’s more urban analyses were not always appropriate.

And her attention to detail has paid off. Last year saw Treviño’s biggest accomplishment since taking over the Natural Sounds Program. The Park Service was rewriting management policies that would have gutted natural sound protections, but the data and recommendations provided by Treviño’s team helped keep the protections intact. Her suggestions also helped pave the way for new provisions honoring “cultural” sounds, like that of cannon fire at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Despite the victory, the experience drove home for her the point that sound is an integral but often overlooked piece of the national park experience. Getting people to hear her message can be impossible when simply getting them to listen at all is a challenge.

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Gordon Hempton, who has taught “listening” at the nonprofit Olympic Park Institute, an education center in Washington state’s Olympic National Park, says that people today must constantly filter out extraneous audio: ringing cell phones, office chatter, lawn mowers, and leaf blowers. That acquired indifference to sound makes Treviño’s job particularly difficult, and Hempton says he’s not sure Treviño’s Park Service bosses are listening to what she has to say. “She’s describing things that she knows have an impact on wildlife, that she knows impact the visitor experience, and all that basically falls on deaf ears. Most people,” he says, “simply don’t know all of the interesting things that are out there to hear.”

On a clear day, a hiker can stand on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and see the Colorado River carving its channel a full mile below. Every day, clear or cloudy, you can hear the helicopters swooping down for a closer look. Air tours are big business. Monitoring that business has become, Treviño says, “75 percent of what we do.” Sightseeing flights cross the skies over more than 130 parks: Helicopter chop is the standard soundtrack at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with more than 30,000 sightseeing flights each year. Only Rocky Mountain National Park has been spared, because in 1998 the Colorado League of Women Voters was able to help get the U.S. Congress to ban aerial sightseeing tours.

The Grand Canyon, of course, hasn’t been so lucky. After years of bureaucratic wrangling, the FAA and the Park Service this year will finally reveal a plan designed to eliminate some of the manmade white noise that has become ubiquitous over the park. “It’s not a dream plan,” Treviño says of what she has seen so far, reluctant to share details. High-altitude jet traffic is off the table, she suggests, because the FAA has navigation concerns. But she is optimistic for an “acceptable consensus” among the stakeholders, and notes that all parties will have to compromise.

Back on the banks of Riverbend Ponds, however, compromise is not something that Treviño is particularly interested in. While her staff tinkers with the new sound meters, she is only mildly interested that the roar of the trucks thundering on Route 44 a half-mile away is 40 decibels lower than the roadside reading. It’s still too loud, a dominant note in the overture. Treviño and her husband, David, bring their three-year-old daughter, Danielle, to the ponds often. The toddler, not surprisingly, has good ears. She’ll point at the planes overhead or the trucks on the road, and she’ll say, “Mom that’s NOISY!”

Her daughter will eventually learn to tune out such noises, to shutter her ears to the planes and the trucks and everything else. “She’s already learning that noise is part of life,” Treviño says. “But there are places we can go to get away from it. And we’re really trying to preserve that.” m

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Rick Polito is a Boulder-based writer. E-mail him at [email protected].

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