Park Visitor, Park Visitor, What Do You Hear?

An emergent issue when it comes to managing for quality visitor experiences in parks and protected areas is sound; or in jargon speak, soundscapes.  The amount of quiet and natural sounds that a visitor does (or does not) experience when in a park or protected area can greatly influence their overall enjoyment.  For example, most people do not want to be in a completely wild-seeming setting and suddenly hear the roar of a helicopter overhead or the engines of a park shuttle bus tearing up the road that is no longer in view. Or your perception of solitude might be ruined if you are out hiking alone only to have an army of Boy Scouts talking and giggling so loudly that you hear them long before you see them on the trail (no offense to the Boy Scouts of course, I was in a Venture Crew for many years and we could have used a few lessons on quiet hiking.).

Recently, more and more studies have begun to focus on natural sounds and the level of natural sound that visitors experience in National Parks.  Not only are researchers interested in how visitors experience park soundscapes but also how to make visitors be more quiet; a task that may seem harder than herding cats.  Just this year two colleagues of mine teamed up with some NPS researchers to examine soundscapes in Muir Woods National Monument and how best to reduce visitor noise levels.

Muir Woods is located outside of the San Francisco Bay area and, although the park is small,it contains over 500 acres of ancient redwood forest and receives high levels of use. The study used experimental treatments at a popular hiking destination, Cathedral Grove, to see if the use of educational signage could convince visitors to be a bit more quiet.  The first treatment used a sign in the Cathedral Grove area designating the area as a “Quiet Zone”. The sign implored visitors to turn of their cell phones, to talk in lower voices, and to have their children walk quietly.  The second treatment placed signs throughout various areas of the park and designed that day as a “Quiet Day” but contained the same requests as the “Quiet Zone” signs.  For the control, no signs related to natural sounds were placed in the park. For each treatment and the control, the level of sound was measured and visitors in the Cathedral Grove area answered survey questions related to the educational treatments (if present) and their visitor experience.

As it turned out, the educational treatments were highly successful! Visitors were extremely perceptive of the signs: with 90% of people who were surveyed saying that they noticed the signs.  Not only did visitors see the signs but they actually complied with the request for being quieter; 96% of visitors complied with  the “Quiet Zones” and 91% reported complying with the “Quiet Days.”   On control days, only 77% of visitors reported that they were consciously trying to keep their noise levels down.  Now it’s one thing for visitors to say that they are being quieter when answering a survey question, but was the noise level actually reduced on treatment days?  Yes!  The “Quiet Zone” sign had the most impact, reducing the amount of noise to a point where visitors doubled their ability to hear natural sound (see figure below from their paper). And as it turns out, visitors actually liked the “Quiet Zones” and “Quiet Days”; they reported being strongly supportive of encouraging less noisy behavior in the park.

FIG. 2. Deviations in predicted sound level in relation to the type of signs on display (no signs, signs declaring a quiet day, and signs declaring a quiet zone). Each circle represents 1 h of measurement (10 a.m. to 7 p.m.). Mean values for each treatment are represented by lines. Differences between the mean control value and the mean treatment values are indicated by arrows.

This study is slightly limited in scope (it examined only one area in one national monument and examined the use of educational signage only), it is exciting to see that such a simple, inexpensive, indirect management technique had a significant influence on visitor behavior.  Much of managing parks and protected areas is focused on changing visitor behavior for the good of the visitors as a whole or for the good of the natural resources. This study from Muir Woods showed that something as simple as a “Quiet Zone” sign is enough to encourage a more quality visitor experience.

Reference:

Stack DW, Newman P, Manning RE, Fristrup KM, Reducing Visitor Noise Levels at Muir Woods National Monument using Experimental Management. Journal of the Acoustical Society of American, 129 (3), 1375 -1380.

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