This toolbox provides information pertaining to the management of soundscapes in wilderness. It includes law and agency policies, management guidelines and tools, examples of plans, and other resources you may find useful. Toolboxes are comprehensively reviewed and updated approximately every three years, with intermittent small updates and additions in the interim. To suggest new materials for inclusion, email Lisa Ronald at firstname.lastname@example.org. Date of last update: 01/12/2019.
"How often we speak of the great silences of the wilderness and of the importance of preserving them and the wonder and peace to be found there. When I think of them, I see the lakes and rivers of the North, the muskegs and expanses of tundra, the barren lands beyond all roads. I see the mountain ranges of the West and the high, rolling ridges of the Appalachians. I picture the deserts of the Southwest and their brilliant panoramas of color, the impenetrable swamplands of the South. They will always be there and their beauty may not change, but should their silences be broken, they will never be the same."-Sigurd F. Olsen
The preservation of the natural soundscapes and rhythms that accompany these resources in the environment is critical to the preservation of wilderness character.
Law and Policy
The Wilderness Act
The Wilderness Act contains both implied and stated terminology that supports protecting the soundscapes in wilderness areas:
- Outstanding opportunity for solitude (Sec. 2(c))
- Primeval character (Sec. 2(c))
- Managed so as to preserve its natural conditions (Sec. 2(c))
- Affected primarily by the forces of nature (Sec. 2 (c))
- Primitive and unconfined recreation (Sec. 2(c))
- No use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorized boats (Sec. 4(c))
- No landing aircraft (Sec. 4(c))
All of these references suggest possibilities for natural soundscapes, and therefore an environment that is not impacted by noise pollution to the greatest extent possible.
The Wilderness Act also allows for activities which may generate sound that is not natural. By law, mining, commercial grazing, water developments, motorboats or aircraft, and actions on private and state land inholdings, may be allowed and activities associated with these uses may generate noise audible inside wilderness. Managers are encouraged to minimize these unnatural sounds when and where possible.
Section 4(f) provision of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 (codified at 49 U.S.C. 303)
Requires that feasible alternatives or all possible planning to minimize harm be used in connection with DOT proposed projects (including FAA overflights and commercial air tour authority);
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (codified at 42 U.S.C. 4371 et. seq.)
Requires that all federal agencies analyze the potential environmental impacts from proposed projects and programs before making decisions.
MS-7300.06 D. Noise
When BLM programs, projects, and/or use authorizations have the potential to affect existing resources that may be sensitive to noise such as public health and safety, wildlife, heritage resources, wilderness, wildland/urban interface areas, and other special value areas (such as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern and National Landscape Conservation Areas), BLM will consider noise and its potential impacts on the public and the environment, as well as any appropriate mitigation measures, during the planning and authorization review process. This is especially important when land use proposals include high volumes of motorized vehicles or mechanized equipment.
610 FW 2.26 How does the Service protect natural night skies and natural soundscapes in wilderness?
Natural night skies and natural soundscapes are aspects of wilderness character that are preserved by:
- Evaluating potential light and noise effects of refuge management activities and commercial services in an MRA. (See section 2.12 and 610 FW 1.18.)
- Cooperating with neighbors and local government agencies to minimize the intrusion of artificial light and unnatural sounds in wilderness areas.
- Monitoring activities causing excessive or unnecessary artificial light or unnatural sounds in and adjacent to wilderness areas, including low-level aircraft overflights.
Taking action to prevent or minimize artificial light and unnatural sounds that adversely affect wilderness resources or values or visitors’ enjoyment of them.
FSM Manual Ch. 2320
Forest Service policy does not specifically address soundscapes in wilderness. However, this value is a part of the wilderness resource and is included in the general policy guidance: "Manage wilderness to ensure that human influence does not impede the free play of natural forces or interfere with natural successions in the ecosystems." It goes on to state that wilderness should be, "managed as one resource rather than a series of separate resources."
The FS also provides policy for planning and management of activities on adjacent lands, "Because wilderness does not exist in a vacuum, consider activities on both sides of wilderness boundaries during planning and articulate management goals and the blending of diverse resources in forest plans. Do not maintain buffer strips of undeveloped wildland to provide an informal extension of wilderness. Do not maintain internal buffer zones that degrade wilderness values. Use the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum as a tool to plan adjacent land management."
NPS Management Policy 4.9: Soundscape Management.
"Park natural soundscape resources encompass all the natural sounds that occur in parks, including the physical capacity for transmitting those natural sounds and the interrelationships among park natural sounds of different frequencies and volumes. Natural sounds occur within and beyond the range of sounds that humans can perceive, and they can be transmitted through air, water, or solid materials. The National Park Service will preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the natural soundscapes of parks".
"The Service will restore to the natural condition wherever possible those park soundscapes that have become degraded by unnatural sounds (noise), and will protect natural soundscapes from unacceptable impacts".
NPS Management Policy 188.8.131.52.
The Service will preserve soundscape resources and values of the parks to the greatest extent possible to protect opportunities for appropriate transmission of cultural and historic sounds that are fundamental components of the purposes and values for which the parks were established.
Management Guidelines and Strategies
Inventory and Monitoring
Inventory and Monitoring
Tongass NF, Misty Fiords NM Wilderness
Managers of the Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness within the Tongass NF (Alaska) sought to try and define impacts to wilderness character in areas that are influenced by flight seeing over wilderness and float plane landings inside wilderness as well as cruise ships in adjacent waters outside wilderness. The major issue was a concern that authorized commercial services landings of float planes may be exceeding encounter standards and they sought an opportunity to provide adequate direction for managing this aspect of wilderness use as part of the FS 10-Year Wilderness Stewardship Challenge, Element 5. Contact the Tongass National Forest (Jacob Hofman, email@example.com) for more information."
Superior NF, BWCAW
The Superior National Forest (Minnesota) proposed to manage a trail near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for motorized vehicle use (ATVs and snowmobiles). Opponents challenged the proposal based on possible impacts to wilderness character from the noise of motorized recreation outside the wilderness. The report and data files in this section represent the monitoring program implemented to determine the actual impacts. Contact the Superior National Forest (Bruce Anderson, firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.
Examples of Plans
Denali National Park Soundscape Preservation and Noise Management Plan
Research Publications, and Other Resources
- Annotated Bibliography - Visitor Experience and Soundscapes
- Annotated Bibliography - Impacts of Noise and Overflights on Wildlife
- Robert C. M., Gregoire, B. J., Chen, Z. (2005). Acoustical Monitoring Research for National
- Wilderness Experience in Rocky Mountain Park 2002: Report to RMNP
A USGS sponsored research program studying natural soundscapes and lightscapes and their relationship to a quality wilderness visitor experience.
- The Effect of Noise on Wildlife: A Literature Review
- Park Science, vol 26, #3, 2009-2010
This issue is devoted to soundscapes
- Burkhart, J. (2006). Sights and Sounds of Winter. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
- Stop to Hear the Decibels. Kenai Wilderness.
- Wild Soundscapes in the National Parks: An Educational Program Guide to Listening and Recording
A guidebook of education programs developed by Wild Sanctuary, Inc.