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.
April 2008

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

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.