Prof. speaks out against Yellowstone noise levels

A single Yale professor is trying to make his voice heard over a cacophony of snowmobiles. Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, a professor of medicine with the Yale Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program, sent a letter to Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis concerning noise levels in the park.

The letter, originally sent Dec. 19, 2005, was released to the public last week and has garnered attention with its criticism of noise in the park, as well as for its suggestions for both park visitors and workers.

“I sent the letter as a concerned public citizen, but as someone with experience in the issues,” Rabinowitz said.

While reviewing noise-monitoring results from the previous winter at the request of an individual concerned with snowmobiles in the park, Rabinowitz found that noise levels for snowmobile riders were between 85 and 91 decibels over an 8-hour period.

“They are certainly producing enough noise to damage one’s hearing,” Rabinowitz said. “I took it upon myself to write the superintendent.”

Rabinowitz suggested in his letter that employees exposed to the noise be enrolled in a hearing conservation program and that visitors riding snowmobiles in the park should also be warned of the possibility of hearing loss.

Rabinowitz also noted the impact of labeling more technologically advanced snowmobiles as the “best available technology,” even if they are still harmful to both humans and the environment.

“Based on my experience, I felt that these snowmobiles posed a risk to human health — human hearing — and I wouldn’t want the employees in the park or the visitors in the park to have a false sense of security,” Rabinowitz said.

Rabinowitz’s letter joins many others. Over the past few years, Yellowstone National Park has received tens of thousands of letters, phone calls and e-mails regarding winter recreational activities in the park, such as snowmobile use, park spokesman Al Nash said.

Many public opinions received by the park are from individuals who believe that they are part of a voting process, Nash said.

“It is not a public vote,” he said.

Nash said Rabinowitz’s comments were different in that they impart a substantive knowledge and understanding to decision-makers at the park.

The issue of snowmobiles in the park extends beyond protecting human hearing.

“The [park service’s] function is to protect the natural quality of the park, including its soundscape,” said Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse.

Regulations regarding snowmobile use in the park have been contested for some time, Blomberg added.

The conflict at Yellowstone National Park was settled previously under the Clinton administration by a compromise to phase out snowmobiles and introduce snow coaches, Blomberg said.

“The Bush administration reopened the entire thing and has been seeking to expand snowmobile use,” he said.

Rabinowitz’s comments illuminate another facet of the issue, examining the occupational health for park workers and the public health of park visitors, as opposed to the environmental arguments previous advocates had focused on.

“I hope the effect of the letter is to increase awareness that ‘best available technology’ is not synonymous with completely quiet or completely risk-free in terms of hearing damage,” Rabinowitz said.

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