chapter  7
The politics of solitude
Listening to environmental change in Rocky Mountain National Park, 1945–present
WithMark Boxell
Pages 15

During the 1980s and 1990s, local residents, the National Park Service (NPS), and advocates for Denver-area Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) successfully lobbied to prevent the spread of tourist aircraft into the park’s airspace. These activists argued that RMNP’s “wilderness characteristics” could not persist without a semblance of silence at their core. The noise pollution controversy rendered the park a site of political conflict over the proper place of transportation technologies within wilderness areas, a culmination of growing tensions between the economic windfalls and environmental consequences of intensive tourist development in the national parks during the post-war period. RMNP’s anti-noise advocates couched their protests in terms of economic pragmatism, defining wilderness as a place where tourists and their automobiles were welcome, while noisy aircraft that might dissuade visitors from entering the park were not. Activists further argued that automobiles represented a more democratic form of transportation that ideally facilitated visitor experiences in RMNP. While local stakeholders and the park service succeeded in banning local touring flights, the NPS’s mandate to preserve RMNP’s natural soundscape did not extend to the commercial airspace above the park, a notable exception given the large number of cargo and passenger aircraft that descended daily over RMNP’s 13,000-foot-plus peaks on approach to Denver International Airport. Indeed, noise pollution and its attendant cultural and political issues arose in the park and around the world during a period when mass transportation and urbanization rooted in the dramatic growth in fossil fuel use – especially petroleum – abounded. The successes and shortcomings in addressing aircraft-based noise pollution in the park reflect both the possibilities and limitations of institution-focused environmental activism in response to human-induced climate change and hydrocarbon-dependent transportation systems.