The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 89 & 90: Listening to Parks

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Do you get into the wilderness for the peace and quiet? How do you know it's going to be there? This edition of The WildeBeat; Listening to Parks.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is a combined edition of program numbers eighty nine and ninety.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

[Intro Music: 0:04.5 ends. SFX: Campground background]

STEVE: Has this ever happened to you? A couple of weeks ago, I was in the remote White Wolf trailhead campground in Yosemite National Park. It started out as a quiet morning. I could hear some birds, the gurgle and rush of a nearby stream, and a few campers who were starting to stir quietly in the distance. But then --

[SFX: Begin motor-home]

STEVE: This motor home just started up some kind of motor, maybe it's a generator, as I was just starting to prepare breakfast. Now sitting right at my picnic table I'm going to put the microphone a foot away from my pressurized gas cook stove, which normally is pretty loud by itself, and you can hear how loud it is compared to the motor home.

STEVE: OK. I turned the stove off, and from my campsite two hundred feet away I'm going to walk toward this motor home.

STEVE: Excuse me, would you be willing to talk to me just for a minute?


STEVE: The motor that started up there a little while ago -- you folks are camped closer to it than I am, how did the sound affect your morning here?

MARIA MUSTANEN: Well, of course it puts you in a whole different place. Because, of course, one of the reasons we come here -- we live in the city -- and to get back to how things were. How they are in some places. Hear the birds in the morning especially. But, you know, even though there's no wind now -- but the rustling. Yeah, it feels like your near a factory.

STEVE: Thank you. Can I get you to say your name and where you're from?

MARIA MUSTANEN: Maria Mustanen, and I live in San Jose now.

STEVE: Thank you, Maria.

STEVE: I don't imagine that anyone in a camp site any closer to this thing could carry on a conversation. And now that I'm about fifty feet away from it, I'm not sure that you can hear my voice on the tape.

[SFX: End motor home, begin campground background]

STEVE: After the generator stopped, and I'd finished my breakfast, I went to talk to the motor home owner. Bill Garcia is a friendly gentleman from Whittier, California.

BILL GARCIA: It was an auxiliary motor running a generator so we could generate a hundred and twenty volt electricity so we could run our coffee pot and toasters and such -- microwave... And I just came back from the entrance and it says that noise is not allowed until after six in the morning. So it was way after six.

STEVE: How do you think the rules should apply for noise generated by park visitors?

BILL GARCIA: Well, it's definitely an annoyance to have the noise in a setting such as this. And this is the reason that I only ran it long enough to make coffee. And I agree with you and with them and with anybody else. I love to hear the birds sing. I love to hear the wind through the trees. It beautiful. And it is annoying to have a generator running. But if you keep it to a minimum, I think it's permissible.

[SFX: End campground]

STEVE: So I think *my* strategy, if this ever happens again, will be to go up to the folks in the motor home and offer to make them coffee on my, relatively quiet, camp stove.

STEVE: Now, you kind of expect noise like this in the park campgrounds that you can drive to. And that's certainly a reason why some of us like to spend time away from roads, in the backcountry. But it turns out, you might not be able to find your peace and quiet *there*, either.

STEVE: I'm talking with Kurt Fristrup. He is a scientist with the Natural Sounds program at the national Park Service at Fort Collins, Colorado. Kurt, welcome to the WildeBeat.


STEVE: Kurt, what is the Natural Sounds program? What does the National Park Service have to do with natural sounds?

KURT FRISTRUP: The Natural Sounds Program works to protect, maintain, or restore acoustic resources and soundscape values in units of the national park system. We fulfill this mission by working in partnership with parks and others to increase scientific and public understanding of the value and character of park soundscapes, and to eliminate or minimize inappropriate sounds.

STEVE: OK. So basically you're measuring noises in the park, or you're studying what sounds are normal in the parks.

KURT FRISTRUP: We inventory the sounds that are intrinsic to the park. The sounds of wildlife, of water flowing, of wind flowing through vegetation, as well as trying to categorize the extrinsic sounds, or noise sources that are presently interfering with the enjoyment of the parks native soundscape. ...And we're concerned about noise, much as the Night Sky program is concerned about light pollution because these sources of sort of "civilized" pollution diminish the capacity of the park visitor to either view the stars and the full night sky -- in the case of light pollution -- or to experience the full dimension of the natural soundscape, in the case of noise.

STEVE: So Kurt, why should natural soundscapes matter to a typical park visitor?

KURT FRISTRUP: Most visitors, coming to the Grand Canyon, and experiencing a day when they can see sixty or seventy miles will remark on the magnificent view, not realizing that in the absence of air pollution they might be able to see two hundred miles. ...A visitor in a national park might be impressed by the sound of a redtail hawk a few hundred yards away, not realizing that if the park were in its native condition, or natural condition, they'd be able to hear that redtail hawk at a half mile away.

STEVE: So what are you doing to find out how the soundscapes are being degraded?

KURT FRISTRUP: We measure the sound levels in parks and can show that they are getting higher with time. And we also listen to and identify all the sounds in backcountry areas and parks, and we can show that noises from outside the park are increasingly obvious. Every year we put out ten to twenty sound monitoring devices in national parks, where we record for up to thirty days to get a relatively complete picture of both the intrinsic acoustic resources of the park, and the noises that are intruding into the park's soundscape.

KURT FRISTRUP: The next sound you hear was recorded very early morning at the Ivanpah recording site in Mojave National Preserve. It's a very active coyote chorus, calling in an otherwise silent night sky.

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KURT FRISTRUP: The Ivanpah recording site overlooks the future site of an new international airport for Las Vegas, Nevada.

STEVE: So are the soundscapes in the park actually threatened?

KURT FRISTRUP: Yes. You could say that noise is one of the most pervasive pollutants in our country today. I say that because we have a large volume of commercial air traffic in this country today, and those routes criss-cross relatively freely across in the airspace above the land. But also we have increasing need for ground transportation. We have new roadways being constructed all the time, and new bridges are proposed over wild and scenic rivers, and the volume on those roadways increases every year. So the amount of noise our society generates is increasing all the time. And especially in the case of aircraft noise, there are very few places in this continent where the sounds of aircraft passing overhead are not a prominent feature of the environment.

KURT FRISTRUP: Yosemite National Park experiences a large number of high-altitude jet over-flights. The next sound is a particularly loud example recorded from Hodgedon Meadow. Following the noise, the jet noise, you can hear the sound of a spotted owl, calling in an otherwise silent evening sky.

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[SFX: 7_14_2006_668_YOSE007_spottedowl2.wav; 0:10.0]

STEVE: The National Park Service established the Natural Sounds Program in two thousand. Their mission is to provide park management with the scientific evidence they need to maintain natural soundscapes in the parks. Monitoring sounds in the parks can be dangerous, at least for the equipment.

KURT FRISTRUP: The next sound you will hear was recorded at Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park. Our recording equipment attracted the attention of a bear which attempted to eat the microphone and the plastic covering.

[SFX: 7_6_2006_266-268_YOSE008_BearEatingEquipment (2).wav]

STEVE: And it's not just large animals.

[SFX: 7_1_2006_143_YOSE008_hummingbird.wav]

KURT FRISTRUP: I very much doubt this hummingbird was looking for nectar because the black foam covering of the microphone doesn't resemble any flower that I've ever seen. Hummingbirds do sometimes forage for spiders and other insects, and so it's possible ...that it was looking for something like that, or it could have just been curious for some other reason we can't understand.

STEVE: And of course, all of this equipment has to stand-up to the elements.

[SFX: 7_21_2006_503_YOSE008_rain_thunder.wav]

STEVE: In spite of weather, and bear and hummingbird attacks, every year they collect months and months of sound recordings to analyze. It takes patience, and a lot of computer time, to sort out the natural sounds from the noise pollution.

KURT FRISTRUP: Thus far we've monitored about 43 units in the national park system. And we try to monitor both remote backcountry locations, as well as front country sites where large numbers of visitors have access... In wilderness areas in the Sierra network of national parks, aircraft are audible between forty and sixty percent of the time, and they're most audible ...during the hours right around sunrise. Both because that represents a local peak in commercial jet traffic, but also because those are the very quietest hours of the day, and so we can hear a jet at the greatest ranges at that time. The problem here is that those very quiet hours of the morning, are also the period in which most-most bird song and other critical forms of animal communication takes place. Animals focus their calling activity at that point in the day because the listening conditions are so good, and so the fact that that's also the point of the day in which we see large numbers of aircraft are passing overhead, and as significant increases in noise levels causes us some concern about the long-term impacts on those ecosystems.

STEVE: So you you think ...that unnatural sounds or manmade sounds could have a negative effect on plant life and animal life and so on that we're trying to preserve in the parks?

KURT FRISTRUP: Well, I'm not actually worried immediately about the effects of noise on plant life, but we do know that there are many studies that do document the effects of noise on wildlife. And those effects take two forms, much as they would for a park visitor. The first form is animal becomes aware of a noise source, and interrupts whatever it was doing to attend to that noise source, to try and perhaps determine what it is and where it is. There is a second class of effects that we're concerned with, which we might call indirect effects or opportunity costs. These indirect effects can have fairly profound impacts in predator /prey systems because many, many animals, many, many predators, use sound to find their prey. And many, many potential prey items use hearing to alert them to the approach of a predator or some other dangerous condition. One fact that demonstrates the importance of sound, is that although there are many species of blind vertebrates that are known, there is not a single deaf species of vertebrate.

STEVE: So if you can hear aircraft fifty percent of the time, you'd think the park visitors would be pretty disturbed.

KURT FRISTRUP: We have conducted interviews of hikers in parks, and we find that the percentage of hikers that report hearing aircraft is a bit lower than the percent of time audible, or the kinds of numbers we get when we send people out to do attentive listening for noise sources. So I think it's possible for these high-altitude jets to become sort of an unremarkable part of the background, and they're unlikely in many cases to have sort of an acute impact on a visitor's experience.

STEVE: While the park service is trying to save the parks from unnatural sounds, you could be saving the natural sounds for yourself. Dan Dugan is a noted expert in nature sound recording.

DAN DUGAN: It's a whole different awareness. People are -- commonly don't really think about sound and nature except maybe a bird or something like that, but once they -- something clues them in to start listening, you can hear, you know, the richness of the environment and also of course you become aware of how rare natural quiet is, and how much to cherish it when you do find it.

STEVE: You probably bought a digital camera to capture the sights of your wilderness trip. But, you know, for about the same money, you could capture the sounds too.

DAN DUGAN: There's a range in audio the same as there is in photography. For a beginner, you would probably start out using an all-in-one flash-card recorder. There's a bunch of them around. There's the Micro-track, there's the Edirol, there's Sony Hi-M-D recorders. There's quite a selection.

STEVE: Dan points out that the microphones built into camcorders don't usually get you good results.

DAN DUGAN: The ones I mentioned are all around four hundred dollars or so. Though there's a complication. The cheaper digital cameras are very suitable for outdoors. They fall down when you try to shoot indoors where the light levels are lower 'cause their lenses are smaller and, you know, they're just not as fast as a big camera. Well you have kind of the opposite thing is sound. The little recorders are very suitable for recording a thing, well, with concert taping, where the sound levels are fairly high. They're not so good for recording very quiet soundsscapes. They have internal noise levels that are too high for something that's very quiet. Sound recordists generally go out with two things in mind, one is species hunting, which people do for research or for collecting, and the other is to record soundscapes, which is picking up the whole scene. And, you know, finding a place with just a beautiful soundscape and recording that.

STEVE: I assume that each of those two requires different sorts of equipment and techniques.

DAN DUGAN: Well the gear is actually the same except for the microphone, but everything else is the same. It's just basically a recorder and headphones. But the microphones are different for species hunting or for soundscapes. For really serious species hunting, it's kind of like the same as really serious species photography. You know, you see the people with those huge lenses that are about a foot long, where you have to have a tripod just to hold the darned lens up, and species hunting requires an equivalent investment. ...but that doesn't mean that you can't make a nice recording of something that you hear and -- you now it just depends on what standard you're trying to reach.

STEVE: And taking a still photograph is a pretty quick thing, I mean, you can grab that photograph a second or two and then proceed on...

DAN DUGAN: ...I usually do a two minute take. In that amount of time I can usually get a really good picture of what is is I'm hearing.

STEVE: Is there any technique other than just getting our recorder out of our bag and turning it on? Is there a trick to getting something good?

DAN DUGAN: Well, Gordon Hempton, the Sound Tracker, taught me that you listen for where there's a sound stage. You move around and listen with your ears and find a place where you've got the interesting things out front, and an interesting environment and maybe some depth there where you can have near sounds and far sounds that are all perceptible, and you position yourself where you have a really nice sound stage, and then you roll your machine. ...If you're doing this in the evening be sure to put your mosquito repellent on before you start trying to record, because you just have to absolutely stand like a stone. Any motion of your body is going to make a clothing noises.

STEVE: So I guess, in this day and age, a person might keep their audio scrapbook from their adventure on something like a digital audio player like an iPod, or something resembling that.

DAN DUGAN: You would be loading your stuff back into your computer when you get home the same as you do with your digital photos. And you'd be editing them on some little digital audio workstation program, which is just as economical, you know, a photo editing programs.

STEVE: And what are the problems people are most likely to encounter when they're trying to get a natural soundscape?

DAN DUGAN: I'd say wind is probably the most challenging thing that happens outdoors... So if you're on a budget you would be building your own wind screen. Unfortunately, quiet places are vanishing fast, and that's one good reason to go our and record before they're entirely gone. Uninterrupted time is getting rarer and rarer. ...It really only comes with experience and how to deal with the environment... and so I encourage people to go out and do it, and don't be discouraged by bad results. Practice makes perfect.

STEVE: And so if you're prepared, and a little bit lucky, maybe you could bag an elk.

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STEVE: You can find out more about the Park Services' Natural Sounds program, about recording your own natural sounds, and hear a combined, high-fidelity version of both parts of this show, on our web site. WildeBeat members can download a bonus clip with more sounds from the parks, and details of Kurt's work in the field. We'd like to hear your comments about this show, or your experiences with interesting or annoying sounds in parks. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373.

STEVE: This edition was made possible with funds provided by listeners like you.

[Closing Music: 0:01 and under]

[part 1] Next time -- part two of Listening to Parks.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. We need your help to make future shows possible; please click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, combined editions eighty nine and ninety. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

Next time -- getting teachers outside.

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