Gordon Hempton had an epiphany the first time he heard snow melting.
To him, the sound was music – a complex rhythmic symphony he had never imagined existed.
Hempton found the sound thrilling and says it added a new dimension to his appreciation of nature.
That was years ago on Hurricane Ridge. Since then, Hempton has traveled the globe, using sensitive microphones to record the subtle sounds of nature – falling rain, chewing insects, wind blowing through trees.
In an increasingly noisy world, he’s become an outspoken advocate of quiet.
“Noise pollution has reached unprecedented levels,” said Hempton, a sound recordist who lives in the Olympic Peninsula town of Joyce. “We have basically learned to ignore noise as much as we can, just to live a sane life.”
This month, as federal agencies consider new rules that would restrict commercial sightseeing flights over Mount Rainier National Park, Hempton has moved vigorously into the fray.
“Aircraft at any altitude are audible and destroy the wilderness experience,” Hempton said. “They are off-road vehicles and should be banned.”
The National Park Service wants to establish rules that limit commercial aircraft tours over Rainier, reasoning that aircraft noise is a form of pollution that interferes with the enjoyment of nature.
Public input on the proposed regulations is being accepted until May 16.
Three meetings have been scheduled for this week to take public comment on the proposals – Tuesday in Seattle, Wednesday in Ashford and Thursday in Tacoma.
George Kirkish, chief pilot and owner of Vashon Island Air, thinks the controversy is much ado over nothing.
Kirkish’s Seattle-based outfit is one of five companies that have permission to conduct air tours over Rainier. His tour plane, a five-passenger Maule, makes very little noise, he said, and the sound doesn’t last for long.
“We’re traveling at about 120 miles an hour,” he said. “An airplane probably doesn’t stay within hearing distance for more than about 20 seconds.”
Kirkish said he very rarely flies over Rainier’s crater itself, because it’s so high.
“It takes a perfect day to do that,” he said.
Most often, he said, he flies at approximately 10,000 feet and stays at least a mile from the mountain.
The Park Service is considering four alternatives for dealing with sightseeing flights, ranging from banning all flights below 5,000 feet above ground level to keeping them frozen at the current rate of 114 flights a year.
The federal law authorizing air tour management plans in national parks was passed in 2000, but so far, no plans have been completed.
The lack of progress, most observers agree, is because of a power struggle between the Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for air traffic safety and must sign off on the park plans.
For two consecutive years, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has tried to bypass the turf war and ban air tours over Crater Lake National Park by inserting amendments into the FAA reauthorization bill.
The only national park that has banned “flightseeing” is Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
All commercial air tour operations in the airspace over that park are prohibited, regardless of altitude, primarily because of lobbying by the League of Women Voters, which got the exception written into federal law.
In addition to Vashon Island Air, air tours of Rainier are offered by Classic Helicopter Corp. of Seattle; Island Air in Friday Harbor; Rite Bros. Aviation in Port Angeles and Wings of Wenatchee in Wenatchee.
Kirkish’s Vashon Island Air conducts the most tours – about 75 a year. He charges $650 for a Rainier tour usually carrying two or three passengers at a time.
Kirkish doesn’t see what the big deal is about aircraft noise. He says he personally likes the sound of airplanes, so much so that he finds it disturbing when he doesn’t hear them.
Immediately after 9/11, when the FAA grounded all flights, Kirkish said he went hiking near Mount Rainier and found the silence disconcerting.
“It was eerily quiet,” he said. “It kind of bothered me.”
But for Hempton, even the most restrictive of the Park Service’s proposals – which would ban all tours under 5,000 feet above ground level – doesn’t go far enough.
Hempton wants a no-fly zone over Rainier – and Olympic National Park, too – prohibitions that would include not only tour operators but private planes and commercial jetliners as well.
“We need to ban aircraft, not plan for aircraft,” Hempton said. “There is no altitude that an aircraft can fly at that it cannot be heard on the ground.”
Every aircraft drags a cone of noise over hundreds of square miles, he says, irritating people and interfering with species that rely on auditory cues for survival.
The FAA predicts that the number of passengers traveling on U.S. airlines will increase from about 737 million this year to 1.3 billion by 2031.
Diverting flights around pristine wilderness areas could be accomplished relatively inexpensively, but the FAA is simply not interested, Hempton says.
“The FAA does not make any attempt to avoid the national parks simply because it’s not a priority,” Hempton said.
The FAA doesn’t see things that way.
“Moving an air route is an incredibly complex thing to do,” said Ian Gregor, public affairs manager of the FAA’s Pacific Division. “Air space is like a Rubik’s Cube. If you turn it one way, it has six different effects.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible,” Gregor said, “but a move can have a tremendous ripple effect down the entire national airspace system.”
Hempton is working with the office of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to get federal legislation establishing quiet areas above several national parks, particularly Olympic National Park.
Cantwell has shown some interest.
Last year, she introduced the “Silence Helps Us Hear Act” (S. 3076), which noted that aviation noise “degrades natural soundscapes.” The bill directed the Department of the Interior to identify the quietest places in parks and come up with a plan to preserve them.
Cantwell’s bill did not make it out of committee, and so far, she has not reintroduced it.
Kirkish thinks the Park Service’s move to restrict tours is attacking a problem that doesn’t really exist. Often when he flies over Mount Rainier, he said, he sees people in the Park waving at him.
“They don’t seem to be bothered by us at all,” he said.
Hempton wonders whether the people were waving or making other hand gestures.
“If he was close enough to see that they were not flipping him off, he was flying too close,” Hempton said.
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693