Podcast | The assault on Olympic National Park’s square inch of silence

In 2005, Gordon Hempton made a single spot within the Hoh Rain Forest famous for its serenity. But now it’s noisier than ever.

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Fog over a rolling forest

Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. (Dave Turner/NPS)

For outdoor enthusiasts, Olympic National Park offers a smorgasbord of ecosystems: rocky peaks, driftwood-strewn beaches and high-mountain meadows filled with wildflowers and bears. But its rain-fed temperate rain forests host some of the biggest trees in the world. 

The Hoh Rain Forest captured audio ecologist Gordon Hempton’s imagination for its serene quiet, free from the intrusion of human noise. For decades, he has recorded the birdsong, bugling elk and pitter-patter of rain in painstaking detail. He’s even declared one small section  “One Square Inch of Silence” as a monument to preserve the natural soundscape of Olympic National Park.

But in the decades since, air traffic over the Olympic Peninsula has made that square inch louder, not quieter — with the Navy’s “Growler” fighter jets providing the biggest obstacle. In this episode of Crosscut Escapes, Hempton and fellow bioacoustic ecologist Lauren Kuehne join us on a trip deep into the forest in search of silence.

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Complete transcript:

Anonymous speaker: [00:00:00] This episode of Crosscut Escapes is presented by Forterra. Land for good.

Gordon Hempton: [00:00:06] "There's everything to love about quiet. It's the perfect antidote to noise. So let's just talk about the quiet."

Ted Alvarez: [00:00:23] Hello listener. Welcome to Crosscut Escapes. I'm your host Ted Alvarez. And I'm going to show you something.

To anyone in the Puget Sound region, the Olympics are a beacon across the water, a wilderness sampler platter full of glittering peaks, giant trees and sweeping beaches studded with rocky sea stacks and tide pools. It's world famous temperate rainforests are indeed some of the wettest places on earth. The epicenter of all this wetness happens in the western river valleys where winter storms feed 200-foot-tall conifers. Thick green moss carpets everything, making it look like a place out of fantasy or legend.

This is especially true in the Hoh Rainforest where it rains an average of 12 feet per year. But if Gordon Hempton had his way, it would also be the quietest place on Earth.

Gordon Hempton: [00:01:14] I've spent a lifetime, four decades as an acoustic ecologist, uh, starting out here in Washington state after I spent 18 months unable to hear. It was a sudden onset, deaf basically, cut me off of my career.

The hearing loss cut me off from the voices of my children and also what I value just as much, which is the sound of quiet and the sounds of Olympic National Park. When I got my hearing back in 2005, I was just so filled with gratitude that I decided, I don't know if I can save silence, but I know that I can try.

Ted Alvarez: [00:01:56] Gordon hiked 3.2 miles into the forest and found an elk trail near a meadow. He followed that trail, placed a small red stone to top of a moss-covered log and declared it "One Inch of Silence.

Gordon Hempton: [00:02:08] I decided that I would protect it, defend it from all human-caused noise intrusions. That was the beginning. What does that mean? It really means that when a noise intrusion came to One Inch of Silence, and it was always aircraft, that I would get online and, through the flight tracker, determine which airline.

I wound up writing Alaska Airlines. I wrote Hawaiian Airlines and also American Airlines, all of which voluntarily agreed to fly around Olympic National Park whenever possible, which was great results and attracted more media attention. And then I was really surprised that it attracted so much attention.

The travelers were going there. They came from Australia, they came from Venice, they came from Asia. They came from France, Germany, especially. I was really stunned. This One Square Inch of Silence, it became a shrine, although I hadn't intended it to be. There were marriages there, there were engagements made in silence.

There were even the scattering of ashes. And although the National Park Service had a different opinion, there was really no impact on the trail.

Ted Alvarez: [00:03:26] After all the attention Gordon's One square Inch of Silence evolved into Quiet Parks International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving and defending quiet spaces worldwide. But Olympic National Park was where the idea was born.

To me, One Inch of Silence is a bit misleading. In fact, the place is actually pretty loud. Just listen and you'll hear birds, wind in the trees, crickets, thunder. And of course rain, more rain, lots and lots of rain. But to Gordon, silence isn't really the point.

Gordon Hempton: [00:04:38] Silence is the absence of vibration. The whole world is vibrating and you'd have to get outside of even the upper atmosphere to be in that vacuum. But in the way that I've used quiet and silence pretty much interchangeably is because they share a feeling.

We started out and often conversations happen to talk about the noise, but forget about the noise. It's like I tell my 5-year-old grandson, "Don't tell me what you don't want. Tell me what you want." It turns out quiet is healthy. Quiet is going to help you think better back at home and also be a better communicator to your family and working partners.

And there's everything to love about quiet. It's the perfect antidote to noise. So let's just talk about the quiet. And yet, at the same time, we can listen to some sounds from Olympic National Park. And while you do, notice how you feel. And that is the true definition of quiet and what it is that we're trying to save.

Ted Alvarez: [00:05:48] To that end, Gordon has been joined by others in his quest to keep Olympic National Park quiet.

Lauren Kuehne: [00:05:54] There's a lot of different ways to measure noise. I use wildlife acoustic monitors. It's very fancy. You bungee it to a tree and you hit "go."

Ted Alvarez: [00:06:05] Lauren Kuehne is an ecologist who specializes in bioacoustics. Like Gordon she's recorded hours upon hours of sounds in Olympic National Park and studied the impacts on both humans and wildlife. Both Gordon and Laura have their favorite sounds that come from different places all over the park, each one with a unique signature.

Lauren Kuehne: [00:06:25] Actually, in winter time, the forests get very quiet, naturally, especially if there's some snow, which further muffles and baffles the sound. And so I've sat in the forest on New Year's in the snow actually, and it's so quiet and you hear your heartbeat.

Gordon Hempton: [00:06:46] These are the sounds that I have not heard in other places. One is the music of melting snow, which is truly stunning. It's actually more like a newly arranged form of reggae. You really want to dance to it when you hear it.

And then another big one would certainly be the Roosevelt elk, bugling and fall over a distance, so that as that waveform expands through the forest, actually the force of the canal, the Queets, the Hoh, these valleys actually sweeten it. If you hear it really close, it's going to be an adrenaline-filling experience for you. But when you hear it from a distance of several miles, it becomes a flute with an echo and the acoustics, which by the way, does match our cathedrals. And so there's really this, oh, just this heavenly, so glad to be alive, kind of feeling

Ted Alvarez: [00:07:56] But for both Gordon and Lauren, there's one beach that is more musical than all the rest.

Lauren Kuehne: [00:08:01] I've been to tons of beaches on the peninsula, but Rialto Beach, the combination of the steep beach with the waves crashing on the gravel, it's just this constant sort of sonorous crashing background to your thoughts.

Gordon Hempton: [00:08:17] I've recorded it more than 700 times and each time it's different. This biggest secret of Rialto Beach is inside of the giant sitka spruce logs that have floated down the Quileute River and other places like that. And then they'd lodged themselves into what I now call the driftwood forest, and you'd go inside these logs, and these logs are the same logs and same species that are used for the crafting of violins because the wood fibers get excited when they receive acoustic energy. And in this case, it's the roar of Rialto Beach and it excites the log, and it's nature's largest violin.

It's so deep and resonant that I listened to it and I go, Oh my God. I think I would prefer just to die inside this log and be happy forever. And I've recorded hundreds of those logs, particularly every winter, like about now, when we get into these super tides, the waves do get up into the driftwood forest and then they take a few and then they're sent further south, hopefully for the accidental discovery of another sonic beachcomber who is willing to put their head in unexpected places just to have a listen.

Ted Alvarez: [00:09:50] We'll be back in just a moment with more sounds of silence after this word from our sponsor.

Anonymous speaker: [00:09:57] It takes work to sustain a place for all of us. For over 30 years Forterra has been doing that work, taking action to promote resilient communities and healthy ecosystems across our region.

From planting thousands of trees each year to developing attainable housing to helping conserve over 250,000 acres of land, the Washington-based land trust has built programs and partnerships to advance conservation restoration and community resiliency across the state. For more information, go to forterra.org.

Okay. Back to the show.

Ted Alvarez: [00:10:40] In the years since declaring this spot one of the quietest in the world, Gordon has had some success. Quiet Parks International has gone on to monitor natural soundscapes all over the world. In 2019, a park in Ecuador became the foundation's first wilderness quiet park.

And in 2020, the city park in Taiwan became the first urban quiet park. But despite being home to One Square Inch of Silence, Olympic has actually gotten noisier.

Gordon Hempton: [00:11:04] Air traffic had tripled coming from Sea-Tac airport, increase in traffic over to Asia choosing to fly over Olympic National Park because the FAA has assigned Olympic park as the preferred flight path for many flights.

Why? The answer to that is because environmental preservation is not on the FAA mandate and they're doing their job and doing a great job of it, which is protecting public safety of passengers, above. But the cost to fly around the Olympic National Park is less than $1 per ticketed passenger and less than one minute.

So, while we might increase emissions flying around Olympic National Park when we talk about our carbon footprint, we remove the noise footprint from Olympic park, which is very important and noise is definitely defined by science as impacting wildlife and our own health.

Lauren Kuehne: [00:12:07] We take our ears for granted a lot and don't think of them.

I think that we think about our eyes. We take care of our eyes and we're always going to get them checked out. But our ears are, they need care and attention and they need rest, also.

Ted Alvarez: [00:12:22] Now there's an even bigger problem for the last four years, the U.S. Navy has launched training exercises over the park with fighter jets, fighter jets that just happened to have the nickname "growler."

Gordon Hempton: [00:12:44] These jets are literally the loudest jets I've ever heard. The sound signature of the onset of a growler overflight, not only demands your attention, and it should because it's also the same signature as flash floods and avalanches, which do present a risk to back country travelers. So while in our photographs, Olympic park may appear to be the same, in the visitor experience is actually very different to the point that I've started to get complaints. Personally, complaints. I gave up on One Square Inch of Silence is anything but a historical marker simply because I can't be sending people to a place that their dose of aircraft noise is now approaching a solid hour in any day at one square inch of silence.

Ted Alvarez: [00:13:40] Lauren has been studying the jets, recording the sounds, they make trying to figure out how much disturbance they cause. According to her research, the Navy is responsible for 88% of air traffic noise in the park. And there's an average of about an hour of total jet noise a day. The planes are so loud that you can hear it 100 feet below the surface of water.

Lauren Kuehne: [00:13:58] All of the aircraft that we have flying around, that basically some of that noise is entering the water is the sort of mind blowing thing. And so, unfortunately it's just, we haven't done the research yet to really say what the impacts are.

Ted Alvarez: [00:14:21] The Navy's been flying over Olympic for decades and they say their studies don't show any adverse effect on wildlife or people. But they do admit these flights might increase in the future.

Lauren Kuehne: [00:14:31] So this is where that tension comes because the National Park Service has soundscape management as part of their policies. And they work really hard to preserve the 95% wilderness designation there. The National Park Service, they can't even fly a helicopter there unless it's life or death. So, this is how seriously they take their mandate. And it's a legal requirement. They are legally required to preserve wilderness experiences for people, including the acoustic environment.

So this is where it gets into that tension, the National Park Service is going to extraordinary lengths to protect the wilderness experience, including, as well as they can, the acoustic soundscape. But then, since they don't control the airspace, you have these really loud jets flying just right above it.

It's not perfect of course, but because the noise from visitors is managed on the ground, to some extent, you can absorb additional traffic because there are policies in place to help handle that. What you don't have is anything in place to handle the airspace.

Ted Alvarez: [00:15:35] Gordon's quick to note that there aren't any winners or losers in this fight. He, Lauren and plenty of others still believe we can all come together for a little peace and quiet.

Gordon Hempton: [00:15:45] I'm not speaking as anti-military. I grew up in a military family. We moved every two years. I understand the sacrifices that families do for just accommodating the frequent moves and everything that's involved.

And this is not a statement against aviation either. Aviation is wonderful. I fly as part of my business to the soundscapes. So I don't see a conflict of interest when we learn to fly around these treasured areas that all of us appreciate. That only increases the attraction to travel. This is good for everybody.

We just don't want big mistakes to happen, in the meantime. There is something that each individual can do when we can say "post-COVID-19" and we're all anxious to travel again and explore new places far enough away that we'll fly again. Before you book online, call the airline and ask them what their flight track is. Do they follow green flight practices? Do they, in the decision-making where their aircraft will fly, do they try to avoid wilderness areas? And, honestly, for the first a hundred callers, that'll be the first time they ever even thought about it, but it's going to make a difference.

Ted Alvarez: [00:17:17] It may seem like a disappointment that as our wild spaces shrink, our wild soundscapes are shrinking with them. leaving fewer places free from the intrusions of human society. But for me, Olympic National Park, and one square inch of silence within it, still stands as a source of inspiration rather than desperation, a whisper of what it and other parts of the world might sound like.

When you visit the Hoh or go anywhere within the parks' sprawling wilderness, most of the time, you'll still more likely than not find yourself overwhelmed, not with silence or quiet, but with the joyful noise that the Olympics have produced for millions upon millions of years, for now.

That's it for this week's episode. Many thanks to Gordon Hempton and Lauren Kuehne, who both also provided the Olympic soundscapes used in this episode. The episode was engineered by Karalyn Smith of Piranha Partners, music and additional recording by the Explorist.

You can subscribe to Crosscut Escapes on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. For more on Crosscut Escapes, go to crosscut.com/escapes. And if you like the show, please review us. It helps other people find us.

Crosscut Escapes is a product of Cascade Public Media.

I'm Ted Alvarez, and we'll be back with another episode next week.


About the Hosts

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.