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Quiet, Please! The Latest Threat to the Big Wild

Photo Source mark byzewski | CC BY 2.0

It was another long summer of smoke-filled eyes in the West. An early snow storm in the Northern Rockies ushers in a season of peace and solitude. Wildfires frighten tourists, excite the media and reacquaint homeowners who built in the forest to Mother Nature’s laws.  Hey, I get it, fires are deadly and sexy – good ratings. But after decades of kicking the environmental can down the road, at the first sign of smoke most politicians want someone else to blame for their pathetic past performances.

Three of the last four summers (2015, 2017, 2018), Glacier National Park erupted in a fury of smoke and flames. Tourists scampered away to Yellowstone, “inholder” homes were evacuated, some incinerated. But that’s not why I picked up the pen today. Let’s talk about quiet, yes quiet.  Where has our quiet gone?

This summer one could not avoid the heightened noise levels associated with firefighting in Glacier’s wilderness backcountry.  Most fires are managed as war zones (cash cows), and business is booming.  Helicopters, low-flying bombers spewing toxic fire retardant, the din of heavy equipment, all drown out the possibility of solitude.  Day after day natural silence is shattered by the sounds of war.  War and lying is the business model that just keeps on giving.

Indoors, where there’s less smoke, there’s no escaping the incessant chatter of media-dweebs wearing those yellow shirts that somehow magically transform cub field reporters into super-journalists.  Our world has devolved into a collage of visual snippets, no other senses need apply, only “refrigerator shots,” please.   How do we not hear the sounds of war banging and clanging around us – paradise lost?

Are America’s halcyon days gone forever, even in Glacier National Park?  Even when nothing’s burning in the Park, low-flying, helicopter-tour overflights shatter the silence with the unmistakable sounds of the Vietnam War.  Kill solitude and you’ve killed the whole wilderness experience. Noisy overflights are a persistent and growing blight degrading many of our national parks.  Thankfully, there is a grassroots coalition of park lovers and organizations called Quiet! Glacier.  Led by Mary T. McClelland, a tenacious activist raised in West Glacier, Quiet! Glacier applies constant pressure on every governmental agency responsible for permitting commercial overflight tours to denigrate Glacier’s natural soundscape.

In 1932, Waterton National Park (Alberta, Canada) merged with Glacier National Park (Montana, U.S.).   Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, World Heritage Site and Bioreserve — the world’s first — is our Nation’s only such designation.   As far back as 1987, when Congress passed the National Parks Overflight Act (PL 100-91), Glacier has been considered a priority candidate for noise-pollution cleanup.  In a 1994 National Park Service’s (NPS) report to Glacier again sat atop the (NPS) priority list for resolution of the overflights/noise problem.   So, after numerous additional studies and extensive public participation, why isn’t there immediate administrative action?

The National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 (NPATMA) required that the FAA and NPS jointly establish and advisory group to help resolve escalating conflicts caused by commercial overflight tour operations over national park airspace.  The National Parks Overflights Advisory Group (NPOAG) was established in 2010. Glacier NP has an existing Air Tour Management Plan (2003) that recognized, analyzed, and proposed several action alternatives to phase out commercial overflight tours, consistent with the Park’s General Management Plan and Decision (1999).  Glacier is 95% defacto wilderness and is generally managed to protect wilderness values.  To be perfectly clear, t’s the FAA acting in bad faith here.

Currently, Congress recognizes Glacier’s outstanding wilderness characteristics.  Both houses of Congress are currently considering the bioregional legislation: The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), HR-2135; S 936.  NREPA includes legislative Wilderness Act protection for all of Glacier’s wilderness backcountry.

Why the incredible delay?  In 2004, it was the Federal Aviation Assn. (FAA) that threw a monkey wrench into Glacier’s best efforts to complete its overflight phase-out plan.  FAA is apparently, still, going on 15 years now, “consulting with their solicitors,” but has failed in all that time to cooperate with Glacier Park officials to enact any of the park’s alternatives.  The overflight phase-out plan remains stuck in bureaucratic limbo.  The FAA is the bad actor here, obstructing at every turn, in opposition to the letter and spirit of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).  The purpose of this MOU is to establish “a framework for cooperation and participation between the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) and the National Park Service (“NPS”) to implement the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000, Public Law No.106-181.”  The so-called “cooperative” effort referred to throughout the memorandum is more than a little ironic.

Under “interim direction,” noisy chopper overflights have largelyignored advisories to areas sensitive to noise, altitudes, and wildlife security — and have for the last 20 years.   For example, air tours routinely fly over wilderness and through the major raptor migration route over the Continental Divide. For scofflaw federal agencies like the FAA, war becomes perpetual war, perpetual funding, gridlock. Bureaucracy adapts, evolving into ideocracy.

In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule of Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless, we have a tyranny without a tyrant. 

– Hannah Arendt

“Millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been spent to prevent Glacier from achieving one of its primary stewardship responsibilities,” said Mary T. McClelland, speaking on behalf of Quiet! Glacier’s 32-member grassroots coalition.   “We will continue this fight until theFAA steps up to honor the NPATMA law they helped write and respect the NPS directive to protect the natural sounds -Quiet- in a Wilderness National Park.”

In the meantime, bureaucracy business is good.  Noisy chopper overflights continue under “interim direction” and the FAA and its NPOAG continues to string the public along with yet another public comment period to rehash, yet again, the same issues that created passage of the National Parks Overflight Act in 1987.  Several other federal statutes give the NPS all the regulatory authority it needs to protect natural quiet in national parks. That’s an impressive 31 years of bureaucratic “delay with full pay.”

“Glacier determined over a decade and a half ago in their GMP that helicopter air tours impair park resources (natural sounds) and conflict with people and wildlife seeking solitude,” McClelland added.  “We implore federal agencies to come together and finalize the plan in honor of the ‘peace and quiet’ people seek when visiting a National Park like Glacier.”  Clearly, this is what Congress intended over 30 years ago, for today and for future generations.

As cold Fall rains turn to snow, tourists return home, migratory birds wing it South, and grizzlies seek out a comfortable spot to den for another long Glacier winter.  Wolverine, bald eagles, wolves, elk and other ungulates never leave this incredibly challenging, rugged landscape.  Glacier returns to a wilderness wonderland of ice and snow, and awesome silence.  We must try to do our part to preserve and restore the natural soundscape in Glacier National Park.  Make America great again; don’t quit growling like a grizzly or howling like a wolf until some sonofabitch “in power” does something to Defend the Wild.

Here’s a little something you can do right now.   See: https://www.change.org/p/glacier-national-park-needs-our-help-to-restore-the-natural-soundscape-please-sign-quiet-glacier-petition

 

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Steve Kelly is a an artist and serves as a member of the board of directors of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.  

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