The Call (And Noise) Of The Open Road

Jun 26, 2012

Every summer millions of Americans take to the open road and head to National Parks. But some road warriors are louder than others. Motorcycles are one of the largest contributors to noise pollution in the parks. EarthFix's Ashley Ahearn reports.

Here’s the sound we’re talking about.

That’s a 2010 Harley Davidson Street Glide. Bikes like this can be loud enough to set off nearby car alarms. The Park Service has been getting complaints about motorcycle noise from citizens and park superintendents around the country.

Karen Trevino heads the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division for the National Park Service in Fort Collins, Colorado. Bike noise wasn’t really on Trevino’s radar until she had a personal experience. She and her son were walking outside the visitor center at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Two motorcyclists were sitting on their bikes idling nearby.

Trevino: “And one of them winked at the other and thought it would be pretty funny. He throttled a couple of times pretty hard, which sent my son, I swear he must have jumped three feet sideways. He’s only three so of course he started crying, he was really upset and I think it was probably at that point that I realized you, know, maybe I should take some of these complaints from people more seriously. ”

Trevino and her team are now recording audio at more than 70 national parks around the country in order to get a handle on just how noise-polluted the parks are.

They found that motorcycles can sometimes be heard from up to 18 miles away.

That noise can make it harder for animals to hear predators, or listen for prey. Elk and songbirds have trouble finding mates. Trevino says that while there are plenty of blind vertebrates, there aren’t any deaf ones.

Trevino: "...and from evolutionary biology, that screams volumes that wildlife depend more even on their ears than they do on their eyes for survival.:

Ahearn: "Karen, I have to tell you, I ride a motorcycle."

Trevino: "Oooh! Actually, that’s great. And I’m glad you told me that. It actually gives me an opportunity to make a very important point which is: The largest problem comes from a very small number of motorcycles and those are the very large bikes that have modified pipes."

A good place to test Karen Trevino’s point is at Mt. Rainier National Park. There’s a popular biker bar not too far from the park entrance.

Babcock: "Well they say rock and roll is noise pollution. I call that bulls*#t."

There I met Dick Babcock. He rode his Harley over to where my bike was parked, to do a little experiment.

OK, so that’s my 2012 Triumph Bonneville.

Babcock: "It sounds like a singer sewing machine."

Now we’re going to hear Dick’s.

Babcock: "To me that’s not an obnoxious level at an idle. If I pick it up a little bit."

Dick Babcock: "You can make it obnoxious but you don’t need to. But being as we’re up here in the woods and the deer are all sleeping, that’s ok."

Babcock: "Oh, yours is still running."

Babcock is one of those bikers who put aftermarket pipes on his bike to make it louder and more powerful. Those parts aren’t illegal, even if the level of noise they create can be. States across the country regulate motorcycle noise differently. Half the states in the U.S. don’t have noise limits for motorcycles at all. And right now, neither do National Parks, says Karen Trevino.

Trevino: "While a lot of people outside the park service, and maybe a few within the park service might like to see us take more draconian action, we are not there yet."

Trevino says the park service is hesitant to limit anyone’s access. For now, they’re still gathering information. So, no tickets or regulations in national parks anytime soon.

What they are doing is partnering with motorcycle associations to ask riders to stay in smaller groups, not accelerate excessively and respect park quiet hours.

Whether riders cooperate is another question.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio