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BLM to reassess motorized recreation in Utah’s red rock country

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A nine-year court battle over motorized recreation in Utah’s red rock country has ended with a compromise agreement in which the BLM will take a new look at 13 travel management plans covering about 6 million acres. A consortium of environmental organizations had challenged 2008 travel plans from six BLM field offices that included 20,000 miles of trails.  The settlement drops the challenges in one field office and about half the targeted acreage, while mandating site-specific reassessment in such popular areas as the San Rafael Swell, Nine Mile Canyon, Dolores River, Gemini Bridges, and the Book Cliffs, as well as Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Dinosaur National Monument. The settlement allows oil and gas leases sold in 2004 to proceed, mostly in the Uinta Basin.

Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, commented that “the negotiations leading up to the settlement agreement were hard fought, and contentious. In the end, we came to a place that provided sufficient certainty to the conservation groups that BLM would take seriously its responsibilities to minimize the impacts of off-road vehicle use on all public resources, including wilderness.”

On the other side of the table, Paul Turcke, the attorney for off-highway vehicle groups, said, “We’re not turning cartwheels over this, but given the alternatives and given the fact that we could participate effectively and make positive changes to this agreement, we think it’s the best option for moving forward.” Motorized recreation enthusiasts applauded the lack of any immediate changes on the ground; no routes were closed as part of the settlement, though some are likely to be shut down during the renewed planning process. Turke notes, “Everyone gets a fair shake in the future process and they can challenge the outcome if they choose.”

The State of Utah and several counties were strongly opposed to the settlement, largely on the basis of longstanding local claims to old roads in the desert. 3000 miles of these so-called RS2477 roads are laced across the BLM land subject to the settlement. “The settlement creates a new regime that is designed to limit access and close travel routes,” the Utah attorney general’s office wrote in a brief filed in February, asking U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball to reject the settlement; “Requiring the BLM to enhance wilderness characteristics, for example, can only be accomplished by closing roads.”

Not incidentally, SUWA’s legal challenge contended that the BLM relied too heavily on the old county roads when it made its 2008 decisions about where to authorize travel, claiming that some of these routes are no longer visible on the ground. The legal challenge targeted the need for more assessment and protection of archeological resources, along with calls for more wilderness protection and designation of three areas of critical environmental concern. Any reductions in motorized use will enhance opportunities for quiet recreation and increase the area within which hikers can experience the deep solitude of the desert and its canyons.  The ideal solution will be creating more separation between motorized and quiet recreation sites.

As Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley said after the settlement was announced, “BLM must take a fresh look at where it will allow off-highway vehicles to drive, this time with an eye towards protecting the very things that make Utah’s redrock country so special — its wildness, opportunities for solitude, and irreplaceable archaeological sites.”

Interestingly, the indispensable High Country News ran a piece recently entitled “The making of a motorhead,” which puts a human face on the debate. At the time I’m posting, the article is in the subscribers-only portion of their site, but if it opens up to others, it’s well worth a read. This excerpt captures some of the tone: Read the rest of this entry »

FAA spurns opportunity for quiet area protection in traffic pattern updates

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Vehicles, Wildlands 1 Comment »

FAA metroplexesWEBA new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) effort to modernize air traffic flow around major cities is ignoring the chance to do slight re-routing that would minimize air traffic over dwindling areas of natural quiet.  The FAA is in the midst of a multi-year process to update the traffic patterns in and out of airports in 17 metropolitan areas.  Each “metroplex” is served by multiple airports, and the FAA’s goal is to increase efficiency and on-time performance, using a number of strategies, including more precise coordination of flights into shared flight paths.  This includes some effort to consolidate flight corridors, which has the good news/bad news effect of reducing air traffic noise over many areas, while increasing it in some of the new corridors.  Unfortunately, some of the new concentrations of activity are over areas that were previously sanctuaries of natural quiet.

The National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Program got involved early in this process, in the hopes that the new traffic schemes could reduce air traffic over relatively quiet park and wilderness lands.  Over the past twenty years, the NPS has pioneered efforts to highlight and protect natural soundscapes; their monitoring and management techniques are gradually being adopted by public lands managers in other state and federal agencies.  While deep wilderness settings are often the focus of these efforts (e.g. Grand Canyon, Yellowstone), many NPS holdings closer to urban areas provide easily accessible experiences of natural quiet.

A recent in-depth article in the East Bay Express looks at the way this has unfolded in the FAA’s planning of the Northern California Metroplex around the San Francisco bay area.  The FAA has largely spurned the input from NPS, which hoped to protect or improve natural quiet opportunities in the Point Reyes National Seashore and in Yosemite National Park.  Despite formal NPS requests, Read the rest of this entry »

Highway noise can block key fish mating calls

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AEI lay summary of:
Daniel E. Holt, Carol E. Johnston. Traffic noise masks acoustic signals of freshwater stream fish. Biological Conservation 187 (2015) 27-33 (ScienceDirect link)
Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 1.35.59 PMWith each passing year, we learn more about the ways that animals use sound—and so also how human noise interferes with their lives.  A new paper looks at how traffic noise from bridges may impinge on the mating calls of freshwater fish; this is the first study to use some of the new metrics of “communication space” in these important and widespread habitats. The species studied was the blacktail shiner, a member of the largest family of fishes (including carps and minnows), with the study sites being small streams passing under bridges on I-85 in Alabama (image shows one of six sites).

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 2.06.36 PMMale shiners make two sounds during mating: loud “knocks” used to challenge other males who are intruding, and softer “growls” used to court females.  Streams are naturally loud environments, with noise from wind, rain, and turbulence; shiners take advantage of a relatively quiet “window” in the broadband noise, between 172 and 366Hz (like many other animals that vocalize in frequency ranges less cluttered by local sounds or other species).  While the traffic noise is not much louder than the natural stream sounds at frequencies above 700Hz, unfortunately for the shiners, in this key quiet window it is significantly louder than the stream noise—and also the seductive growls of male shiners.  The graph shows natural ambient noise (green), road noise (red), and growls (black dotted line).  The two peaks in the growl acoustic spectrum are particularly important; the lower peak in particular is dramatically drowned out by traffic noise.

blacktail_shiner2The bottom line for the fish is that their knocks, which can be heard above the natural sounds of the creek out to about a half meter, are just slightly masked—only within three meters of the bridge are they lost in road noise (3m is the mean; maximum modeled range of effect is 22m).  So these calls of challenge and defense among males, which may also show females who’s the most fit, can serve their purpose unless the action is taking place right under a bridge.  The subtler sounds of the growls, however, are much more impacted.  These sounds, being quieter, are meant to be heard at very close range (generally just a few inches from the nest sites); yet the lower peak in the growl sound spectrum will be effectively inaudible in areas out to 640m (almost a half mile) from a bridge, and the second peak will be similarly masked out to 40m (both distances are means; maximum ranges are, respectively, 12km/7 miles and 1600m/1 mile). Adding insult to injury, peak spawning time is morning, before water temperatures rise, which may coincide with peak morning traffic.  Of course, only a small portion of most spawning streams is near heavily travelled interstates or secondary roads; those near more sporadically-travelled local roads are likely to be less affected.  Still, if the effect extends a half mile or more, large stretches of many streams could have some degradation of their natural and necessary acoustic habitat.

The authors’ conclusion neatly sums up what all this means going forward:

The noisy environment in which C. venusta spawn has a convenient window in the noise spectrum, which is exploited by C. venusta for the purpose of communication with females during reproductive behaviors. Our results show that this quiet window is disrupted by road traffic noise. This discovery should be followed up by studies investigating the behavioral and stress responses of C. venusta, as well as other more imperiled fishes, to noise from bridge crossings. Future efforts should also be made to characterize noise from different bridge styles, daily temporal patterns of noise, and attenuation at longer distances.



Forest Service to limit snowmobiles to designated trails, areas

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snowmobiles white mountainsTen years after the US Forest Service started requiring off-highway vehicles to stick to designated routes, a similar policy has now been adopted for snowmobiles.  When the OHV policy was developed, much of the concern was on streamside erosion and damage to meadows, so similar limitations were not considered as important for vehicles traveling over snow.  However, from the start, cross-country skiers and snowshoers pushed for limits to snowmobiles, as well, stressing the impact of motor noise, which can travel far across mountain basins in otherwise very quiet landscapes.  In recent decades, as snowmobiles have become more powerful, remote high-country snowfields popular with skiers have been attracting more snowmobiles as well.

Now, the Forest Service will require each National Forest to designate specific areas for snowmobile use.  Unlike OHVs, which are generally limited to trails and roads (with modest excursions off roads allowed for hunters), the snowmobile rule allows extensive areas to be opened to snowmobiles.  While generally very pleased with the new policy, the Winter Wildlands Alliance (a leading quiet recreation advocacy group) expressed concerns that this areas can be nearly as large as a ranger district.

Over 40% of National Forests that get consistent snow cover already manage snowmobiles as required under the new rule, so nothing will change there.  In other forests, user groups have collaborated to achieve similar ends:

“About four years ago, we worked with snowmobile groups to reach an understanding about riding areas near Stevens Peak,” said John Latta of Spokane, co-founder of the Inland Northwest Backcountry Alliance. “The people that sit down with us have gray hair and like to ride the trails. We have a pretty good understanding of each other’s needs.”

Still, some riders have broken these informal agreements, so the new rules will help alleviate such problems.  Snowmobile groups tend to support the measures as well; Paul Turcke, a lawyer who works with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Blue Ribbon Coalition, said “We want people to have a plan so they know where they can and can’t go and coexist with other users.  We hope this is a step in the right direction.”

Noise issues featured on annual “top stories” lists

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Every December, local papers around the country routinely highlight the top stories of the year gone by.  Based solely on AEI’s routine Google News keyword results, it appears that noise-related issues were among the major topics in several areas.

Wind farm noise issues made the lists in at least two places.  In Van Wert County, Ohio, it was the #2 story of the year.  The wind industry has been complaining loudly about a tweak to state rules that now measures the state’s modest 1300-foot setback limit from  property lines, rather than homes.  While wind developers claim this precludes most development, the option of establishing good-neighbor agreements with those living close to proposed turbines remains open.  In Huron County, Wisconsin, the #7 story was “Wind energy continues to divide community,” as the county and several townships consider revisions in their wind ordinances.

And, not surprisingly, continuing controversy over the diluted Grand Canyon National Park overflight rules was a top story in northern Arizona.  The big development this year was the FAA making 1700 additional flight permits available to companies using “quiet” aircraft. AEInews has covered the overflight issue in some detail for many years.

AEI poster for the Wind and Wildlife Research Meeting

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Next week in Denver, the American Wind and Wildlife Institute and National Wind Coordinating Collaborative will be hosting their 10th Wind and Wildlife Research Meeting.  For the second time, I put together a research summary poster for the event (here’s the first one).  Most of the presentations at this meeting are focused on direct mortality (birds or bats hitting turbines) and habitat-disruption issues; in recent years, concerns about the sage grouse on the northern plains and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new eagle permit process have also been hot topics.

As usual, my contribution is one of the few looking at the effects of the moderate noise around wind farms.  It offers an overview of the current state of our understanding of the ways chronic moderate noise can change animal behavior and communication, shift population structure, and increase physiological stress.  It includes data from studies on sage grouse, frogs, mammals, and songbirds, as well as discussion of other considerations, uncertainties, and future research needs.

Effects of chronic moderate noise on animal behavior and distribution

Judge overturns snowmobile exemption to USFS Travel Management Rule

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When the US Forest Service initiated far-reaching Travel Management planning in 2005, mandating that all National Forests analyze off-road vehicle use on their lands, and specify roads and trails where off-road vehicles would be allowed, wilderness and quiet-use advocates were thrilled.  Before that, many forests allowed free-ranging use of ATVs, dirt bikes, and other vehicles on any trail not specifically designated as off-limits with posted signs.  Thanks to the all-too-common practice of removing such signs, along with the more-than-occasional off-trail use that created “new” trails over time, the new rules, which turned the tables by allowing vehicles only in areas clearly designated for their use was a big step forward.  Those traveling by foot could look forward to having a bit more separation between themselves and lovers of motorized recreation; often, ridgelines separated basins where visitors could expect to find substantial natural quiet.

Snowmobile copyExcept in winter.  The groundbreaking Travel Management Rule specifically exempted snowmobiles from being subject to the limits contained in each forest’s local Travel Management Plan.  The reasoning was that many of the damaging aspects of unfettered ORV use were less relevant in winter; in particular, damage to vegetation and streambeds, and all the related risks of increased erosion.  These impacts are indeed significantly less in winter, though some soil compaction can occur beneath snowmobile trails over meadows.

But one key impact from motorized use can actually be worse in winter: the noise footprint of the vehicles.  Thanks to better sound transmission in cool air and across frozen, leafless landscapes, the sounds of snowmobiles often travel much further than the sounds of ATVs and dirt bikes in summer. This can clearly impact other forms of recreation, as well as disturbing animals who are sensitive to noise intrusions. In Idaho, lovers of “quiet recreation” worked hard to get snowmobiles included in national and regional travel planning, and when they failed, the national Winter Wildlands Alliance took the question to the courts.

This week, a Federal Judge in Boise agreed that the exclusion of snowmobiles from an otherwise comprehensive approach to travel management planning was “arbitrary and capricious” and “contrary to law,” ordering the Forest Service to revise the 2005 Travel Management Rule within 180 days to include snowmobile management.  According to the AP:

Mark Menlove, executive director with the Winter Wildlands Alliance, said the decision was a monumental victory for backcountry skiers and other winter recreationists seeking a peaceful experience in the woods.  The group’s goal is to not shut down snowmobiles in national forests, but force the agency to designate specific boundaries that carve out distinct areas for those who want to explore on powered sleds and those preferring skis, snowshoes and hiking boots.

“Many of our members use snowmobiles more and more to get to certain places, so we’re not in any way asking the forest service to ban them,” Menlove told The Associated Press on Monday. “But we are asking for some balance there, where our constituents can go and find peace and powder snow in the backcountry.”

While this ruling applies only to National Forests in Idaho, it may lead to similar reviews and expansion of travel management planning nationwide.  

Yellowstone snowmobile plan finally getting off its merry-go-round?

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It’s been a couple of years since we’ve checked in on the eternal Snowmobiles in Yellowstone debate, and in what’s sure to be a shock for those who’ve been following the issue since the Clinton administration, not much has changed!  During Team Obama’s first summer, Ken Salazar announced that the ongoing string of temporary winter use plans would be extended for a couple of years while the NPS accepted comments on yet another round of EIS preparation.  The Clinton adminstration completed an full EIS process, and announced its final ruling (which banned snowmobiles) just in time for the winter during which W was sworn in; the Bush NPS team suspended that plan and launched a brand new round of comments under a new set of temporary rules.  While the Bush plan didn’t ban snowmobiles, it did require, for the first time, that all groups of snowmobilers go with a local professional guide.  This requirement led to a dramatic decrease in snowmobiles entering Yellowstone; most snowmobilers prefer being able to be footloose, and the huge expanses of National Forest land in the region became their preferred playground.  Complicating implementation of that plan, however, were dueling Federal court rulings that appeared to contradict each other; some of these uncertainties lingered on into 2009, as the Obama administration began overseeing the process.

Snomobison011805In the years since, the two-year extension of the Bush-era temporary plan stretched to four, and finally the new proposed plan has been released.  In truth, it isn’t all that different than the Bush plan in terms of total numbers of snowmobiles and snowcoaches, though it tweaks a few elements in ways that may reduce some impacts, especially air quality, over time.   It seems likely that the noise impacts will be roughly similar to those documented in a series of studies we covered here in 2009, in which NPS researchers found that snowmobiles or snowcoaches were audible over half the day in many popular areas, including at Old Faithful 68% of the time, and 59% of the time at Madison Junction.  Still, the new plan does include some absolute dB limits for snowmobiles (67dB) and snowcoaches (75dB), and requires best-available technology on all vehicles by five years from now. The plan opens the door a crack to unguided groups (allowing one per day from each Park entrance), and continues the expensive practice of using explosives to keep a rarely-used pass open to snowmobiles (at the behest of the businesses in nearby Cody, Wyoming).  While the plan slightly increases the average number of snowmobiles to be allowed (from 318 to 342), the actual daily average over the past several winters has been under 200 per day.

Given that previous plans have triggered lawsuits from both environmental groups seeking stricter rules and local business interests wanting fewer restrictions, it’s probably a good sign that both the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the snowmobile group Blue Ribbon Coalition responded with generally positive comments, while unlike 2009, no instant legal challenge came from the State of Wyoming, either. Fatigue has finally settled in, it appears, as the BRC’s spokesman suggested: “I think for my organization it would be important to resolve this and come up with a long-range plan that doesn’t get challenged in the courts.”

For detailed coverage of the new plan, see this article from National Parks Traveller.  The local Billings Gazette is always a good source for those wanting to track how this all unfolds.

McCain, Reid succeed in quest to stop Grand Canyon overflight rules

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CanyonI guess the third time was the charm for John McCain in his relentless quest to undermine the National Park Service’s decades-long effort to slightly reduce aircraft overflight impacts in the Grand Canyon backcountry.  Since the NPS released its draft plan several months ago, McCain had crafted amendments to a couple of pieces of legislation in an effort to codify the status quo overflight rules; this week, it was inserted into the Transportation bill that was passed by the House and Senate and quickly signed by President Obama.  The Arizona and Nevada congressional delegations, including Harry Reid, had supported the effort to assure no changes to air tour operations (most air tours are based out of Las Vegas, allowing casino visitors a quick look at the canyon).

Despite the fact that the NPS draft would have allowed more annual tourist flights than have ever occurred, the air tour industry painted the plan as an economic death sentence.  The plan would have created some seasonal flight path restrictions, offering different areas of the park a bit more sonic space at different times of year, and, most substantially, would have kept air tours out of the sky for an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.  I have to wonder if the sunset restriction may have been the bitterest pill for the air tour operators to swallow, though it would have been a substantial boon for hikers and river rafters.  Given the relatively soft definition of quiet being attempted, to have a couple hours a day of soft light and no air traffic seemed to me to be the fairest solution.

The NPS plan would have aimed to let 70% of the park experience “substantial natural quiet,” which means no planes audible 75% of the time (i.e., planes can be audible one minute of four, or fifteen minutes per hour, hardly a pristine soundscape).  The McCain effort as passed will maintain the status quo of substantial natural quiet in half the park; the other half of the park has no limits on aircraft audibility.

See these links for earlier AEI coverage of the final NPS draft and subsequent legislative attempts to derail it.  Here’s initial news coverage of the final stealth success in derailing the process.

Motorcycle noise in National Parks: take it slow

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I just came across a fascinating piece on Oregon Public Radio’s EarthFix site, in which author Ashley Ahearn, a rider herself, discussed motorcycle noise in National Parks with Karen Trevino of the NPS Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division.  

Trevino notes that most of the excessive noise on roads comes from bikes with aftermarket exhaust parts, while the vast majority of motorcycles pose no special noise problems.  Ahearn’s bike “sounds like a Singer sewing machine,” according to one of the enhance Harley owners that the author talked to outside a biker bar near Mount Rainier National Park.  That may be what Trevino and her NPS cohorts wish all bikes sounded like, but that’s not the case.  In the video below, the NPS charted the sound footprint of a single motorcycle traveling along the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park; the Park Service has found that bikes can be heard up to 18 miles away in some situations.

MotorcycleNoiseVid from EarthFix on Vimeo.

Trevino says that while the NPS is gathering data, there are no plans to impose restrictions on motorcycles in National Parks.  Rather, the NPS is partnering with motorcycle associations to ask riders to stay in smaller groups, not accelerate excessively and respect parks’ quiet hours.

In-depth soundscape ecology study underway at Alaskan wildlife refuge

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A really fascinating multi-year study is underway at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge which sits on a peninsula along the south side of the Cook Inlet in Alaska (Anchorage and Wasilla are at the innermost tip of Cook Inlet).  Tim Mullet, a Ph.D. student at what looks like an amazing program at the Institute of Arctic Biology, is undertaking what may well be the most comprehensive soundscape analysis ever undertaken on a landscape scale. “As far as I know, nobody has attempted to model sound in the landscape,” says Mullet. “We could encounter some big surprises there.”

Over several summers and winters, he is collecting recordings with 13 units placed in different areas of the refuge; some are permanent locations, and others he moves around in order to explore the soundscape in more areas. He already has 85,000 hours of sound data, and hopes to expand his recorder array to 23 units this year as well. These two articles provide a great overview of what Tim’s up to.

Snowmobile density in the Kenai NWR (red most, blue least); note that the shaded areas on the east side are nominally closed to snowmobile traffic, yet show some sign of activity.

Snowmobile density in the Kenai NWR (red most, blue least); note that the shaded areas on the east side are nominally closed to snowmobile traffic, yet show some sign of activity.

“At this point, I’ve got an idea that 30 to 40 percent of Kenai’s wilderness could be affected by human–made noise,” says Mullet. The study goes beyond simple decibels (loudness), though. It is a foray into the emergent field of soundscape ecology, which examines the interplay of anthrophony (human–induced sounds) and biophony (natural sounds).

Loudness is “a piece of this study,” says Morton, “but another piece is the origin of sound—whether it’s human or nature—and developing a ratio between the two. It’s definitely cutting edge.” Understanding the relationship between anthrophony and biophony is important to the refuge and wildlife conservation in general, Morton says, because “human–generated noise can drown out natural noises—and that can be a huge deal, to the point where animals can’t actually hear themselves.”

In addition to collecting and mapping sounds, Mullet is studying whether moose who live closer to high levels of sound show higher stress levels than those in more sonically pristine areas.  While some snowmobiling advocates seem concerned that Mullet’s work may lead to new restrictions on their access to the refuge, Mullet himself understands and appreciates the key role of snowmobiles in Alaskan recreation, and aims to simply clarify what the various cumulative impacts of noise may be. Snowmobile trails create other impacts as well, especially compacting snow, which can benefit wildlife by offering travel paths, though biologists are also interested in how this easier travel may shift some predator/prey relationships.

More info: See two articles written by Mullet, one on the many qualities of snow, and the other exploring our different ways of listening, and introducing the Kenai study.  Also of interest from Tim is this research proposal, which summarizes previous research into both the impacts of noise and other snowmobile impacts (unfortunately, the sections of the proposal that are yellow-highlighted come through on the pdf as blocked out).

Congressmen aim to derail Grand Canyon air tour rules

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As regular readers will know, the National Park Service completed an epic planning process earlier this year when it released proposed rules governing air tours at Grand Canyon National Park.  After over two decades of discussion, including a failed attempt at coming to a consensus decision with all parties a few years back, NPS planners came up with an approach that was generally well-balanced.  It allows airplanes and helicopters to remain a strong presence in the park, with 8000 more annual flights being allowed than have been occuring in recent years, and half the park still hearing aircraft throughout most of the day.  On the plus side of the ledger for quiet recreation is a groundbreaking no-fly period for an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, a window of peace and quiet that will transform the back-country experience for the entire park.  And, flight corridors in two popular back-country areas will alternate seasonally, so there is a time of year in each when it will be noticably more serene.


Nevertheless, the air tour industry claims the plan will put them out of business; it’s not at all clear how this could be, given the greater numbers of flights.  I wonder whether the sunset period is especially popular for flights; if so, this could be a bitter pill for air tour operators to swallow.  Yet it’s hard to deny that this is a time of day when river runners and hikers will find their experience immeasurably improved when birds, wind, and water are the dominant features of the evening soundscape.

Heeding the air tour griping, four Congressmen, two from Arizona and two from Nevada, have added an amendment to a Department of the Interior appropriations bill that would strip all funding for implementation of the rule.  Earlier, the region’s two most powerful Senators, John McCain and Harry Reid, signed a letter opposing the plan, and McCain also attempted (and failed) to push through an amendment blocking it.  For more on the current amendements, see this editorial in the Arizona Republic and this post that details objections from other Arizona representatives and the National Parks Conservation Association.

Mt. Rainier air tour planning: a rare case of “not to late”

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At most of the places where the National Park Service and FAA have commenced air tour management planning (ATMP), there is already a deeply entrenched local air tour economy, as well as a visitor expectation that they can take flight in order to see the beauty from above.  The Grand Canyon is of course the Mother of All Overflight Controversies; similarly, the the Black Hills/Mt. Rushmore and Hawaii Volcanoes ATMPs also dove into situations where thousands of annual flights were already taking place.

But now for something completely different: At Mt. Rainier National Park near Seattle, only 114 flights are currently allowed each year, with actual numbers apparently lower.  This provides a rare opportunity to give real consideration to Alternatives that truly maintain natural quiet on the mountain.  The Park is currently accepting comments on a set of draft alternatives for use in the ongoing EIS process.  Two of the proposed alternatives would greatly reduce noise in the park backcountry: Alternative 1 simply bans all flights over the park, and Alternative 4 keeps planes to the far periphery of the park, and at high altitudes.  Alternative 3 allows 55 flights per year to circle the peak, and introduces the NPS’s recent innovation (being spearheaded at the Grand Canyon) of setting aside no-fly times – in this case, weekends, and sunrise/sunset on Monday-Thursday, and keeps planes at 2000 feet or more.  Alternative 2 maintains current use patterns around the peak, capping flights at 114 per year.

Truthfully, any of these options will maintain Mt. Rainier as a place where hikers can experience the natural soundscape with minimal intrusion.  But, the opportunity to establish a precedent for keeping commercial air tours out of relatively pristine National Park lands is one that is worth keeping on the table; we encourage support for the inclusion of the “no air tours” alternative.  Comments are being accepted through May 16.

NPS Mt. Rainier ATMP page ; Mt. Rainier Draft Alternatives

And remember, comments are being accepted through early June on Draft Alternatives at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, too.  There, Alternatives range from 28,000 flights per year to “no air tours” (though this will allow flights around the periphery, and over 5000 feet within the park).  You can read about the process and comment here, and you can download the alternatives here.

Great piece on noise and other regs in National Parks Traveller

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The National Parks Traveller blog recently ran a great piece titled Give Us A National Park, Please, But Not its Regulations.  Here’s the lead:

We love our national parks. We love the wildlife they hold, the seashores with their sparkling sands, the forests with their wildlife and hiking trails, the soaring red-rock cliffs and plunging canyons.

But please, don’t ask us to abide by their regulations.

Uproars over managing off-road vehicles in both Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Big Cypress National Preserve, the oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore, air traffic over Grand Canyon National Park, snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, and now bike races in Colorado National Monument all seem to drive home that point, no?

The piece goes on with evocative detail and interesting historical perspective on the Parks’ struggles to balance preservation and access.  Very well done.


Forest Service starts “minimal roads” planning

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Unbeknownst to most of us, a long-term National Forest Service approach to managing roads on its millions of acres of non-wilderness lands has been waiting for activation since January 2001, when the Forest Service finalized a plan for the long-term management of their oversized and under-maintained road system. That plan basically directed the agency to identify an ecologically and fiscally sustainable minimum road system that would meet resource management and recreational access needs. The plan projected that the agency might reduce the overall road system by more than 30%, and that as a result “unroaded” acreage might increase by up to 15% nationally.  Wildlands CPR fills us in on the details with this web post and a real nice pdf version of their magazine feature on the story.

Screen shot 2011 02 17 at 8 47 20 PM

A combination of political neglect and other factors has meant that even as the “minimum road system” goal remained on the books, and was part of the Travel Management Plan process that many forests engaged in over the past decade, implementation of the idea has never happened.

Now that has changed, with the release in late 2010 of a directive from the Forest Service Chief. The guidance memo directs all national forests to identify, through a science-based analysis, an ecologically and fiscally sustainable minimum road system by 2015.

In addition to the five years it will take to conduct this analysis nationally, it will likely take decades to actually implement the minimum system on-the-ground. But the plans developed through this process will, over the long-term, create a blueprint for future road maintenance and decommissioning investments, including Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative funding.

For those interested in large landscape connectivity for wildlife, this initiative presents an opportunity to reduce road densities as well as protect and restore linkages and core habitat. For those interested in clean water and fisheries, it is an opportunity to improve water quality and watershed health. And for those interested in fiscal responsibility, it is an opportunity to identify a road system that the Forest Service can afford to maintain.


McCain amendment aims to undercut Grand Canyon noise reduction plan

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Senator John McCain has introduced legislation that would derail the National Park Service’s recently-released compromise plan to reduce noise levels in the Grand Canyon.  McCain’s initiative, apparently included in an amendment to another bill (details are sketchy so far, with nothing on McCain’s website so far), would declare that keeping half of Grand Canyon National Park relatively free of noise from air tours is good enough.  By contrast, the NPS proposal, which increased the total number of tourist flights allowed but concentrated them in smaller flight zones, would keep two-thirds of the canyon free of any aircraft noise (including commercial jets and non-tour private aircraft) for most of the day.

McCain seeks to codify what has been the Park’s modus operandi for the past 17 years, a 50% protection standard that was achievable without making major changes.  That interim approach was adopted while Park staff, environmental groups, and air tour operators attempted to come to a consensus on how to move forward.  While the NPS does not and cannot regulate commercial overflights, the sound from high-flying jets does impact the canyon, and the NPS included these sounds in its planning of air tour routes, so as to keep aircraft noise inaudible for 75% of the day in the “quiet” parts of the park (of course, allowing aircraft noise for 25% of the day hardly creates an experience of solitude…but this is part of the compromise that wilderness advocates are being asked to accept).  By not counting commercial flights in the total noise budget of the Park, McCain is rolling things backward.

The McCain approach would also do away with two of the Park Service’s key innovations: seasonal shifts of air tour routes, so that different parts of the park are quiet at different times of the year, and most importantly, the no-fly period that would keep the canyon truly quiet for an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.

Ironically (or perhaps not, for those tracking the Maverick’s devolution over the past few years), McCain was the main proponent of the 1987 bill that set this process in motion, and called for “substantial restoration of the natural quiet and experience of the park.”

Obama signs bill that will lead to “warning noise” requirement for electric cars

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The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010, championed by John Kerry and the National Federation for the Blind, was signed in early January by President Obama. Spurred by concerns that new, near-silent vehicles may pose a danger to both the blind and those not paying attention visually, the law will eventually require all vehicles on the road to make some sound to help keep pedestrians safe. For now, the law calls on the Secretary of Transportation to “study and establish a motor vehicle safety standard that provides for a means of alerting blind and other pedestrians of motor vehicle operation.”

This year’s new entrants in the electic car sweepstakes already include features that help with this problem. The Nissan Leaf makes a sound to warn pedestrians when traveling at slow speeds (at higher speeds tire noise is sufficient), and the Chevy Volt includes a chirping sound that can be triggered by the driver (as a subtler alternative to the horn).

For a look at some sound design concepts for electric vehicles, see this AEINews post from about a year ago.

Yellowstone snowmobiles: this winter much like last year

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Been wondering what’s the latest on the Snowmobiles in Yellowstone front?  Then head on over to this good long article from New West, which sketches the history and explores the current tone in gateway communities.

The short story is that after spending the summer accepting public comments on the latest round of “permanent” winter use planning, the Park is operating this winter is operating under the same temporary plan as last year, which allows 318 snowmobiles per day.  Local businesses are adapting to the changing clientele, which includes more skiers and snow-coach tour riders, and far fewer snowmobilers.  My only quibble with the article’s narrative is that it downplays what appears to have been the key factor that has reduced snowmobile use: while the Bush administration overturned the Clinton-era ban which was about to go into effect, and set much higher daily limits (750 machines), a requirement was added that ALL snowmobilers must be part of guided tours.  The loss of free-wheeling exploration by groups of friends led to several winters in which the daily limits were rarely reached; there is plenty of gorgeous National Forest land in the region where snowmobilers can romp freely, so why putter along on group tours in the Park?

Will Senate swallow McCain’s bait on last-minute Grand Canyon overflight intervention?

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UPDATE 3/25: In response to a quick wave of outrage on editorial pages and some Park Service lobbying, Senator McCain has withdrawn his proposed amendment.  It remains to be seen whether he will let the NPS EIS process set the final rules, or seek to have the Senate write rules if the process lags or heads toward a resolution that differs from his sense of the proper balance.

That John McCain can sure be a puzzle.  Or is it a case of the old maverick’s bait and switch, staking the high moral ground while pursuing a typically old-guard agenda?  Whatever he’s up to, let’s hope the rest of his Senate colleagues don’t buy into it.  Way back in 1987 McCain led the push to enact the National Parks Overflights Act, which called for the FAA and NPS to come up with a plan to reduce the aircraft noise experienced by Grand Canyon visitors.  This was a truly welcome and indeed, maverick move.  In the 23 years since then,  as noted by the Arizona Republic this week, “the process of adopting a noise-management plan often seemed to move at the same geological pace as the forces shaping the Canyon. ”  This has frustrated advocates for natural quiet, and it has frustrated Senator McCain.  So when the Senator introduced an amendment last week to codify air tour rules, saying that  the amendment reduces excessive aircraft noise “without waiting another 23 years for progress,” it might appear that he’s still taking the high road, standing up to the ridiculous bureaucracy.

But wait: what the good Senator neglected to mention is that the NPS Environmental Impact Statement governing overflights is due out sometime in April.  Yes, the 23-year wait is at its end, after years of collaborative dialogue and NPS research, and within a few weeks, we’ll see what the NPS has proposed.  Yet for some reason, the great champion of the process wants to undercut that work and impose his own version of what would be right and good.  According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the plan McCain is putting forward would allow more air tours than are currently permitted, and otherwise constrain the Park Service’s ability to manage air tours in order to fulfill the original 1987 Act’s stated purpose of “substantial restoration of natural quiet.”  While most of McCain’s amendment seems to mimic what the NPS has indicated it’s aiming for, an FAA-convened working group fell apart over some of the NPS ideas, seasonal limits on certain popular air-tour corridors.  Air tour managers were upset at some NPS provisions, and in the wake of the group’s failure, the FAA’s role is diminished as the NPS moves ahead.  While the EIS is due in April, comment period will follow, and of course, lawsuits by air tour groups or environmentalists looking for more quiet could also delay implementation.  All this may well fuel McCain’s efforts to get something closer to the FAA or air tour groups’ sense of a fair balance into law, rather than wait through the likely challenges.

The Senate is likely to vote on McCain’s amendment this week; the measure may well slip through, as it is co-sponsored by both Arizona and both Nevada Senators (yes, Harry Reid); many air tours originate in Las Vegas.  The NPCA is urging members to call their Senators, and the Arizona Republic also weighed in against short-circuiting the nearly completed EIS.  (Ironically, the NPCA honored McCain in 2001 for his leadership on the overflight issue.)  See also Senator McCain’s floor statement, and the text of his amendment.  If you do call your Senator, this is Amendment 3528, being attached to the Senate’s consideration of HR 1586, which proposes a tax on bonuses paid by some recipients of TARP funds.

NPS research shows human noise limits animal listening area, alerting distance

Animal Communication, Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Vehicles, Wildlands, Wind turbines 2 Comments »

A key research paper from National Park Service and Colorado State scientists has been published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.  The paper, which got a lot of press when it was first made available online in the fall, introduces two key new metrics for measuring the effects of noise on animals.  The first, “alerting distance,” is the distance at which sounds can be heard: these may be sounds made by a species to alert others to danger, or sounds made by predators (which prey animals want to hear, so as to take cover).  The second, is “listening area,” the full area around an animal in which it can hear other animals’ calls, footsteps, and wingbeats.  A key insight offered by this approach is that even moderate increases in background noise (from nearby roads, airplanes, or wind farms) can drastically reduce an animal’s listening area.  The paper, which was free while in pre-press, is now available only to subscribers to the journal or other academic journal services; an article published in Park Science magazine and free to view online introduces much of the same material (be sure to click on the links to the figures, as they illustrate the concepts very well): see the article here, and check out the entire special soundscapes issue of Park Science here.

A very good article in the Aspen Times introduces the research, and includes many extremely insightful quotes from the researchers.  Go read the whole article! Three bits that are especially worth keeping mind are:

  • “The male sage grouse, in its mating displays, produces high-frequency popping sounds and swishing sounds,” Fristrup said. “It also uses a low-pitch hooting sound, which carries the farthest from the display area as a long-distance advertisement. The danger is, it doesn’t take a lot of noise to substantially reduce the range at which females or other males could hear that low-frequency hoot. So the attraction radius of the display ground could contract substantially with the inability to hear a hoot.” The authors note that some species can reduce the effects of masking by shifting their vocalizations. This is especially true when members of a species are communicating with each other. However, when the sounds a species depends on emanate from another species (such as a mouse burrowing under the snow, which an owl needs to hear as it hunts), there is less room for compensation.
  • Carnivores like lynx, who sit at the top of the food chain, can be particularly sensitive to habitat degradation of any type — including auditory — since each individual requires a huge hunting territory. “If one part of the range of a top-level predator is compromised, it may not take much to squeeze it out,” Fristrup said.
  • Contrary to what one might expect, noise is not always more disruptive when it’s louder. Snowmobiles or cars, for example, might be less disruptive to elk or deer than a hiker or cross county skier would be. “There’s pretty good evidence that so-called quiet use can disturb wildlife. If it’s a noisy source, the animal perceives it a long way off and can track its progress. There are no surprises, and it can go on feeding or doing whatever else. A quiet sound, like a snowshoer’s footstep, is only perceptible when it is very close, potentially startling the animal,” Fristrup said.

To read AEI’s detailed lay summary of the research paper, published here in December, see this link.

Electric cars trigger new sound design concepts

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In the best overview I’ve yet seen of efforts to solve the “problem” of electric cars being so quiet, the New York Times Wheels blog provides a tour of the the apparently burgeoning of field sound design for these future (and increasingly, present-day) vehicles.  Most designs plan to incorporate sounds that will alert nearby pedestrians of a car nearby, but will only emit sound when the car is slow-moving (above 12 or 15 mph, tire noise will be sufficient).

A speaker embedded in the bumper of a Fisker Karma (click to link to blog post)

A speaker embedded in the bumper of a Fisker Karma (click to read NY Times blog post)

Among the key questions is whether electric car owners will be able to customize their car’s “voice,” ala cell phone ring tones, or if they should be standardized.  So far, individual auto companies are each pursuing their own standard sounds, which could presumably become part of the “look and feel” of the car’s branding.  A Nissan engineer quoted in a September article from Bloomberg,  says that “we decided that if we’re going to do this, if we have to make sound, then we’re going to make it beautiful and futuristic.” The company decided on a high- pitched sound reminiscent of the flying cars in “Blade Runner,” the 1982 Ridley Scott film. “We wanted something a bit different, something closer to the world of art,” said the Nissan designer.  At least one acoustic design company has turned its attention to becoming the “go to” company for automakers facing this 21st century problem.  The Times blog and its accompanying article are both great reads on this fascinating – and for some anti-noise activists, frustrating – topic.

NPS study: moderate noise can have major impacts on animals

Animal Communication, Bioacoustics, Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Science, Vehicles, Wildlands 3 Comments »

An ongoing research project from the National Park Service Natural Sounds Program is about to publish a groundbreaking paper that outlines the many ways that even moderate increases in human background noise can create major impacts on animals.  The study proposes a new metric for use in bioacoustics research, the “effective listening area.”  This is the area over which animals can communicate with each other, or hear other animals’ calls or movements; as might be expected, animals focus especially on listening for sounds at the very edges of audibility, so that even a small increase in background noise (from a road, wind farm, or regular passing of airplanes) can drown out sounds that need to be heard.  The authors note analyses of transportation noise impacts often assert that a 3dB increase in noise – a barely perceptual change – has “negligible” effects, whereas in fact this increased noise reduces the listening area of animals by 30%. A 10dB increase in background noise (likely within a few hundred meters of a road or wind farm, or as a private plane passes nearby) reduces listening area by 90%.

In addition to introducing this important new metric, the paper provides a good overview of previous research that has addressed the impacts of moderate noise on various animals, including bats, antelope, squirrels, and birds.  The paper will be published next year, though an “in press” version is available for download.  A recent BBC article also covered this important new work.  A full detailed lay summary of this paper, as previously published on AEI’s science research page, appears below the fold: Read the rest of this entry »

Wyoming challenges 2-year Yellowstone snowmobile limits

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As surely as winter follows autumn, Yellowstone National Park’s annual rite of tussling over snowmobile use has arrived just on time.  After issuing a proposed 2-year winter use plan in September, and opening its arms to receive a round of public comments that likely mimic those received during the previous three attempts to settle this issue, the Park Service issued its interim rule on Friday, and on Monday, the State of Wyoming challenged it in federal court.  With the winter season due to open in December, the now-unsettled situation is a familiar one.  Improving the situation over previous years, however, Wyoming says it will not ask for an injunction to stop implementation of the new rule on the eve of the winter season, since outfitters are basically prepared for the lower numbers already.

Photo: Bob Zellar, Billings Gazette

Photo: Bob Zellar, Billings Gazette

This time, the number under dispute is 318.  That’s how many snowmobiles the new interim rule calls for; the last full NPS EIS recommended the same in 2008, though the Bush administration intervened and proposed instead that 540 be allowed.  That, of course, spurred environmental groups to challenge the rule, which was overturned by a DC federal court.  The NPS is headed back to the drawing board, and is planning a 2-year EIS process to try to resolve the issue, with the current proposed interim rule to be in place for the next two winters. Wyoming has called for NPS to revert instead to a 2004 winter use rule that allowed 720 machines per day; this rule began a tradition of spurring dueling rulings from federal courts in DC and Wyoming—the DC court saying that the number is too high to fit with NPS science findings, and WY court saying that the limits are too low—which the 2008 EIS was trying to resolve.  Yikes!

Rather than try to recount the whole sordid mess up to now, if you’re a glutton for punishment I invite you to peruse the AEIews archives or Special Report on the issue.  For local news coverage of this round in the mother of all snowball fights, see this article in the Jackson Hole Daily, and this commentary by a local environmental group urging snowmobile advocates to turn their sights toward National Forest lands around Yellowstone where, in fact, winter snowmobile enthusiasts spend the vast majority of their motor-sled time.  This AP article provides a concise history, up to this September when Federal Judge Clarence Brimmer decided that he had no standing to intervene to derail the new interim rule and impose the 2004 limit of 720 snowmobiles (in a legal thread separate from this week’s challenge, Wyoming has asked the regional Federal Appeals court to allow or urge Brimmer to address this claim UPDATE 11/24: The Appeals Court denied the appeal, agreeing with Brimmer that the original issue is moot now that NPS has issued its temporary plan).  In the meantime, let’s all pray for snow and some modicum of sanity to quiet this decade-long dispute in the next couple of years!

Denali Flight-seeing Guidelines End First Season

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In April, a set of voluntary guidelines for air tours in Denali National Park was released, meant to minimize noise intrusions on backcountry hikers.  An Aircraft Overflights Advisory Council spent a bit over a year coming up with the proposals, which included asking pilots heading for the summit of Mt. McKinley/Denali to avoid two high-altitude camps used by people climbing the mountain.

A  "sound station" on the Ruth Glacier is monitoring the noise level of aircraft landing on the glacier. NPS Photo.

A “sound station” on the Ruth Glacier is monitoring the noise level of aircraft landing on the glacier. NPS Photo.

Likewise, Kahiltna Glacier campers have been subject to planes climbing to cross Kahiltna Pass, where pilots are encouraged to climb to altitude before approaching the pass.  According to the Denali website, these “best practices” are designed to safely reduce sound impacts in key areas, and are subject to refinement and revision as operational experience is gained.  The Park Service is monitoring the effectiveness of the measures; Charlie Sassara, who is a member of the Council, says that “we will now try to look at additional mitigation measures to enact in 2010.”

Obama family visit grounds Grand Canyon air tours, as NPS forges ahead with new plan in wake of consensus group failure to agree

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After eight years of struggling to bring conflicting interest groups together to support a consensus alternative for managing air tours at Grand Canyon National Park, an FAA-organized Grand Canyon Working Group has adjourned indefinitely.  The Working Group included NPS, FAA, tribal, environmental, and aviation industry representatives. At the Working Group’s last meeting, in late June, the GCWG disagreed on NPS alternatives, including a seasonal shift in air-tour corridors by alternatively closing the Zuni and Dragon corridors, which are now open concurrently.  According to a recent article in Aviation International News,  “The FAA does not have a role at this point,” said Lucy Moore, the GCWG mediation facilitator, adding “When the NPS presents one preferred alternative, the FAA will then review it for safety issues.”  In recent years, the NPS has clarified its goals to meet congressional mandates to “substantially restore” natural quiet in the canyon; they are aiming to have half the canyon be free of air tour noise 75% of the time, though high-altitude jet flight will not be regulated.  The Park Service is aiming to release a draft EIS in 2010; see their overflights web page for more details.  At the June Working Group meeting, participants noted that the Park Service seemed more engaged and prepared to push for protecting natural quiet than during the previous administration; however, it is unlikely that the NPS plan will have as dramatic an effect on reducing air tour noise in the canyon as did an August visit by the First Family, when dozens of air tours were grounded for much of the day during a peak visitation period.