Dossier: Soundscapes - Observatori del Paisatge

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October 8, 2009

Solitude Becomes Exhibit A in Battle Over National Parks Management

Great Sand Dunes National Park Superintendent Art Hutchinson was walking in the remote south-central Colorado preserve last year when he was startled by the ringing of bells from a Catholic monastery 8 miles away.

SCOTT STREATER

The New York Times (Estats Units) [Feature]

'If I'm hearing these bells,' he recalled this week, 'they can hear what sounds are out here' in the park, home to North America's highest dune, formed by ancient lake sediments piled high by winds from the nearby Sangre de Christo Mountains.

Then he thought about an energy company's pending proposal to drill two oil and gas exploratory wells in the adjacent Baca National Wildlife Refuge, 2 miles from Great Sand Dunes' western border, and another realization sunk in.

What was later confirmed by NPS's Natural Sounds Program Office to be the quietest national park in the United States could become an echo chamber for the state's burgeoning energy industry, Hutchinson feared.

Now Great Sand Dunes is at the center of a lawsuit and growing national debate about the effects of sound pollution in national parks and wildlife refuges like Baca.

Two environmental groups are suing the Fish and Wildlife Service to block the issuance of permits to Toronto-based Lexam Explorations Inc. that would allow for the drilling of two 14,000-foot-deep wells on the Baca refuge. Their argument hinges in part on sound monitoring data collected by the National Park Service in Great Sand Dunes, which they maintain would be ruined by the pounding hydraulics and thundering machinery of oil and gas wells.

A federal judge in Denver last month handed a partial victory to the environmentalists by issuing a injunction against any drilling at Baca until the lawsuit is resolved. U.S. District Judge Walker Miller concluded that plaintiffs 'presented adequate evidence that the drilling of these wells is likely to cause irreparable injury' not only to wildlife but also to the refuge's 'significant 'sense of place' and quiet.'

If Miller's view becomes law, it could have far-reaching effects, park advocates say, by forcing federal agencies nationwide to more seriously evaluate the 'natural soundscapes' of the lands they manage when permitting nonconforming projects, including roadbuilding, logging, energy development or other activities.

'Noise pollution, like light pollution, is becoming an increasingly big problem at our parks,' said Bryan Faehner, associate director for park uses at the National Parks Conservation Association. 'The uniqueness of a national park and the special experience you can have at a park is less special if you can't see the stars or if you can't listen to the amazing songs of migratory birds.'

Faehner pointed to a recent string of court decisions endorsing the notion of natural soundscape preservation at national parks, including U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan's landmark 2008 ruling that the managers of Yellowstone National Park must account for snowmobile noise in the park's winter use plan. Among other things, Sullivan wrote that stewardship of park resources 'apply equally to the conservation of the parks' natural soundscapes.'

And while the 1916 legislation creating the Park Service orders the agency to preserve 'natural soundscapes' along with the scenic vistas and wildlife at each park property, only a handful of the 391 park units nationwide address sound issues in their general management plans. And none have formalized parkwide sound management plans, despite a 2000 NPS director's order that called on park managers to develop plans 'to preserve and/or restore the natural resources of the parks, including the natural soundscapes associated with units of the national park system.'

So far, two park units -- Zion National Park in Utah and Minute Man National Historical Park in Massachusetts -- are writing noise action plans that will be incorporated into park management rules, said Frank Turina, a planner with the agency's Natural Sounds Program.

 

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