The Military’s ‘Garbage Disposal’ Jets Are Ruining One of America’s Quietest Parks
The Hoh Rainforest of Washington state was once one of the least polluted with human noise. Now, things have changed.
The Hoh Rainforest located in Washington State’s Olympic National Park is a pretty magical place. Bordering the Pacific Ocean, the rainforest region of the peninsula is filled with deciduous old-growth, moss-laden forests that sparkle amidst the infamous drizzle of the Pacific Northwest.
While hiking, you can hear the crunch of a twig beneath your boots, and each drop of rain individually splattering into molecules as it returns to the sponge-like soil below. It’s so quiet and peaceful in fact, that it may be the quietest place in the continental United States. In the late 1990 s, Gordon Hempton, an Emmy-winning sound engineer, traveled the world, searching for some of the quietest places ever. He found it and in 2005, dropped a red rock, marking the tiny corner the One Square Inch of Silence.
Almost instantly, the spot became a world-renowned tourist destination. To be clear, if you were looking for a place that was actually devoid entirely of sound, this has never been that. Instead, Hempton says he and others in the field define natural quiet as “a place where there is the least amount of human noise pollution.”
This means that despite it being one of the most visited national parks, you can still hear birds chirping, raindrops falling, and the sound of your own breath. At least, you could. As of 2018, it lost its claim to fame, and if you travel there today, you may not get the natural, peaceful experience you were searching for. In fact, you may get exactly the opposite.
It’s not the influx of social media-crazed tourists creating noise as is the case at other parks, nor is there development adjacent to the park causing issues, either. Instead, the culprit just so happens to involve the U.S. Navy and fighter jets.
Despite the remote locale of the Olympic Peninsula, just a few minutes away via aircraft is Naval Air Station Whidbey, a base which has been operational since WWII. At the station are about 80 Growler Jets, a high-profile, highly advanced jet used for electronic warfare that has another claim to fame: it’s one of the loudest in the skies, at least according to a 2009 report on jet engine noise reduction performed by the U.S. Naval Research Advisory Committee.
According to people who have been on the Peninsula during flights, the sound is startling.
“It’s crazy,” Hempton told The Daily Beast. “These are called ‘Growlers’ for a reason. They literally growl. It’s so loud that it can be confused with an avalanche or a flash flood. You stop thinking about anything else, when you hear it, and begin to wonder if maybe you should move to higher ground, towards safety.”
The sound is described by the Navy in their most recent Environmental Impact Statement as comparable to that of a “garbage disposal.” To that, Rob Smith, the Pacific Northwest director of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), an environmental nonprofit asks, “a garbage disposal may not make your ears bleed, but is that what you’re expecting to hear when you go out into the rainforest?”
Despite the fact that these fighter jets are impairing one of the most peaceful parks and places in the United States, the Navy has no plans to remedy it. Instead, per their Environmental Impact Statement published in late 2020 they are planning on increasing the number of flights they perform over the Peninsula.
For the Navy, this base, and the military operation areas over the park where Growlers are flown is a “critical training area due to the unencumbered airspace that is set aside to support safe aircrew training,” where pilots practice “large-scale conflict, homeland defense, and anti-piracy operations,” among other things, Michael Welding, a spokesman at Naval Station Whidbey Island told The Daily Beast.
However, for Lauren Kuehne, an environmental scientist (formerly with the University of Washington) who now runs her own consulting firm, there is a big disconnect going on between the mission of the Park Service and the Navy’s flight practice.
“The National Park System is required by law to manage wilderness so that you don’t notice the imprint of people,” she said, pointing to the NPS’ mandate. “They don’t use helicopters unless it’s a life or death situation, and when I was doing my studies, I had to camouflage my recorders so people wouldn’t notice them. Then you have these jets flying, unregulated because there is no jurisdiction over the airspace.”
This is true—as Smith of the NPCA confirmed: “The jurisdictional boundary of the NPS stops at the top of the vegetation, and the FAA does not manage for environmental impacts.”
This means that, effectively, no one studied the potential impacts of the jets. Kuehne set out to do a study that was largely the first of its kind.
Her first study was conducted in 2016, shortly after the Navy announced they were planning on increasing the amount of flights over the Park. She told The Daily Beast the purpose of the study was to “answer basic questions that no one had the answer to: how many hours a day can you hear the planes and what kinds of planes are they?”
Keuhne found that someone on a six-hour, peaceful hike could experience one hour’s worth of jet engine noise on a given weekday. This means that at least a fifth of the time during weekday hours aircraft could be heard over the Western part of the Olympic Peninsula. She also concluded that almost 90 percent of air traffic was from Growlers and other military aircrafts.
“I thought this would lead to meaningful conversations about how to address the issue,” Kuehne said.
This is not what happened. Instead, a battle of op-eds shortly followed.
Instead of focusing on the basics the study was trying to prove, the Navy published an op-ed in The Seattle Times that refuted several facets of the study—microphone calibration for one—and some of the conclusions, including the impacts the noise might have on the behavior of orcas.
However, Kuehne argues in her own op-ed that the impacts on orcas’ behavior was never a conclusion she drew, but instead, another question that she believes necessitated more research. Kuehne went on to question why the Navy decided to focus on certain aspects of her study, instead of recognizing and seeking to address the simple issue of noise pollution she asserts she thoroughly proved out.
“I think the biggest issue is they are not engaging with the community,” Kuehne said. “Their attitude has largely been to say ‘Prove it.’ They are basically going to deny this until the last possible minute.”
Smith added that it isn’t so much about stopping the flights, but perhaps doing them elsewhere. “This is not the right place to do this,” he told The Daily Beast, “And they’re creating a problem.
“We want the Navy to help us defend Olympic National Park, one of the few special places we have left,” he said. “Isn’t that what defense is supposed to be all about, anyway?”