- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash.

Gordon Hempton reclines against the trunk of a western hemlock tree, arms behind his head, and listens closely to the quiet symphony of nature: the rumble of the Hoh River in the distance, a winter wren’s trill, the chattering of a Douglas squirrel.

Perhaps more striking is what is missing: the sound of airplane traffic, campground generators or chatty hikers. Mr. Hempton said such sounds are disturbing the peace at national parks.

The abundance of quiet in this small spot led Mr. Hempton to place a small reddish-brown rock on a moss-covered log here last year, designating the remote spot in western Washington’s Hoh Rain Forest “One Square Inch of Silence.”

The acoustic ecologist’s hope is that by protecting this tiny spot from man-made sound, a much larger part of the park will reap benefits.

“Quiet is going extinct,” Mr. Hempton said. “I wanted to find a quiet place and hang on to it and protect it.”

National park officials like the concept.

“We’re certainly aware of the need to take whatever measures we can to maintain the natural quiet,” said Bill Laitner, the park superintendent who hiked to the spot with Mr. Hempton earlier this year. “We are so strapped for resources that there’s just no way we can … do this kind of research on our own.”

National park officials have released a draft general management plan — including goals and strategies for protecting natural quiet and soundscapes — that will be finalized in the coming year. Mr. Hempton said the draft as written doesn’t go far enough.

He wants Olympic National Park added to the Federal Aviation Administration’s list of no-flight zones for all aircraft. He also wants the park to hire a full-time acoustic ecologist and to complete a comprehensive sound survey within the next five years.

Although national parks want to preserve natural quiet, Mr. Laitner said, they will never be able to afford to implement all the changes Mr. Hempton wants. With 30 former full-time positions unfilled, he said, an acoustic engineer for Olympic National Park “will never make its way high on the priority list.”

In response, Mr. Hempton has set up an account to organize a not-for-profit organization to help pay for the monitoring of the site.

His “One Square Inch” album — an hourlong recording of soundscapes from the park — is available on ITunes and the One Square Inch Web site, with proceeds going toward his project, including paying for his travel expenses to the site, and letters and audio discs he sends to those he considers noise violators.

Mr. Hempton makes his living recording and selling nature soundscapes and by providing audio consultation to companies, including Microsoft. He won an Emmy for the 1992 Public Broadcasting Service documentary “Vanishing Dawn Chorus” and has recorded sounds of nature on six continents.

“I’ve circled the globe three times in pursuing silent places,” he said. “Olympic National Park is the most sonically diverse and is the national park that has the longest periods of natural quiet that I have observed.”

Mr. Hempton, who lives about two hours north in Joyce, visits the site about once a week in the spring, two to three times a month during the summer and about once a month in the winter. He uses a sound level meter to check the decibels, does some recording and keeps a log of any “noise intrusions.”

On a recent hike, Mr. Hempton stopped along the trail at various times, holding up his sound level meter.

At one spot, the decibel level was so low — just 26 decibels — that he observed, “Probably the loudest sound was a few drops of the alder leaves back there.”

The biggest noise violators, he said, are airplanes. Mr. Hempton said airplane noise at the park can range from 35 to 65 decibels — the highest levels comparable to a vacuum cleaner in the next room or a laundry dryer eight feet away.

“Noise impact continues long after the sound itself is heard,” he said. “We aren’t really talking about noise levels that will impair our hearing, but we are talking about noise levels that will impair our listening.”

If he hears a jet engine overhead, he notes the time and later checks flight paths over the park, and sends a note to the airline along with an audio recording of the sound and asks them to no longer fly over the park.

Mr. Hempton has secured an agreement from American Airlines not to fly over the park, though an airline spokesman said there were never any plans to fly over the park anyway.

In April, he complained about a Hawaiian Airlines flight that registered at 44 decibels in the square-inch spot. A written response from the airline said the park is not in its normal flight path, except for some checkout flights after plane maintenance, but that it will ask pilots to avoid the area.

Alaska Airlines similarly agreed to ask its pilots not to overfly the park during maintenance and test flights but noted that some routine flights will continue to follow FAA-approved routes over the park. “Altering flight paths would likely mean a less efficient flight path, requiring more fuel to be burned, which would lead to an increase in emissions,” said Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Amanda Tobin Bielawski.

The three noisiest parks in the country are the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Hawaii Volcanoes, mostly because of aerial tourism, Mr. Hempton said.

He first started seeking out natural quiet in the early 1980s, recording nature around the world. He was given a $10,000 grant from the Lindbergh Foundation in 1989 to study soundscapes in Washington state. His final report outlined his “one square inch” idea.

Mr. Hempton said he found his square inch on Earth Day 2005, when he just kept walking until he got away from outside noise.

“I felt I was being ushered to a place,” he said. “I didn’t put a trail in to one square inch. I just followed an elk trail. It’s just such an out of the way, insignificant, pleasant, quiet place to be. I thought I’d place the stone there, and I did.”

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