Now Playing:


Environment | Land

The Call (And Noise) Of The Open Road

Motorcyclists leave a popular bar near the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park.

Motorcyclists leave a popular bar near the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park.

Ashley Ahearn

Karen Trevino’s job safeguarding the natural sounds of America’s national parks took on a personal dimension when she brought her son to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Two motorcyclists were sitting on their bikes idling near the visitor’s center when Trevino and her toddler walked by.

“And one of them winked at the other and thought it would be pretty funny. He throttled a couple of times pretty hard. I swear my son must have jumped three feet sideways,” Trevino recalled. “He’s only 3 so of course he started crying. He was really upset.”

Motorcycles are among the largest sources of noise pollution in national parks. The park service has been getting complaints about motorcycle noise from citizens and park superintendents around the country.

Research conducted by the Park Service found that motorcycles can sometimes be heard from up to 18 miles away. Here’s a visual of the noise a motorcycle made on the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana:

(Video courtesy of the National Park Service)

Trevino heads up the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division for the National Park Service. Her team is 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.

Trevino says noise pollution 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.

“And from evolutionary biology,” Trevino adds, “that screams volumes that wildlife depend more even on their ears than they do on their eyes for survival.”

I had to do it. I couldn’t keep it a secret any longer. I confessed to Trevino that I ride a motorcycle.

She took it pretty well.

“I’m glad you told me that,” she said. “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 Mount Rainier National Park. There’s a popular biker bar not too far from the park entrance.

When I pulled up there were at least five Harley-Davidson motorcycles lined up out front, their chrome and black paint gleaming in the afternoon sun. Classic rock played at the bar and wafted out over the all-American hogs.

I asked Dick Babcock, owner of one of the Harleys parked out front, what he thought about the noise bikes like his make.

“Well, they say rock ‘n’ roll is noise pollution. I call that bullsh*t,” he said, laughing.

Babcock rode his Harley over to where my bike was parked to do a little experiment. First we fired up my 2012 Triumph Bonneville. She’s a beautiful gold color but makes about as much noise as a Prius on electric drive.

Reporter Ashley Ahearn on her (relatively) quiet Triumph

“It sounds like a Singer sewing machine,” Babcock said.

Then came Babcock’s Harley. I was recording and the audio went straight into the red… and then some. Babcock loves the sound. He described it as having a certain “mystique” reminiscent of old Marlon Brando movies.

“You can make it obnoxious but you don’t need to,” he said. “Being as we’re up here in the woods and the deer are all sleeping, it’s OK,” he said, revving the engine.

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. In fact, half the states in the U.S. don’t have noise limits for motorcycles at all.

And right now, neither does the National Park Service, says Karen 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,” she says.

Trevino says the park service is hesitant to limit anyone’s access. For now, it’s 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 parks’ quiet hours.

Whether riders cooperate, is another question.

More News

More OPB