Andersen: Saving the still, small voice

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Silence is a rare condition in a world where noise is a commodity. The volume keeps going up, sold by purveyors of entertainment and machinery, bought by sensory addicts plugged into devices pumping decibels into ear ducts.

In the classic movie “Spinal Tap,” the amplifiers could be turned all the way up to 11. That’s what we’re reaching for today, as ambient-noise levels drown out the peaceful sounds from which we are more and more removed.

As silence vanishes so does a sense of sanity from hearing the still, small voice that speaks to each of us in quiet moments. We are becoming deaf to that voice of reason, conscience and self.

Backcountry noise from snowmobiles, dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles carry a price for those who need and appreciate the silence of deep nature. This noise issue is currently being addressed by the U.S. Forest Service, which is seeking input that will make backcountry designations fair, equitable and, ultimately, enforceable.

I’ve made it clear in this column that I side with the quiet, human-powered experience of backcountry travel. Machines have their place, I guess, but I always prefer it when their place is different from my place in the mountains and deserts. One person on a machine should not determine noise levels for an entire topography.

The Forest Service is seeking input on a travel management plan that will, ideally, keep conflicting uses apart from one another. Seeking peace among forest users is a high priority for rangers who must otherwise use their time trying to mediate conflicts.

Peaceful winter travel is a requisite for most 10th Mountain Hut users, so a campaign is underway to protect winter soundscapes in the forests where huts are located.

According to the Colorado Mountain Club’s Winter Wildlands Alliance Team, “many places in our national forests that have historically been used by skiers and snowshoers have been overrun because of an anything-goes approach to winter management.”

Rather than suffering steely-eyed glances between skiers and mechanized backcountry users, it would be smart to designate quiet places where conflicts don’t occur. Rather than grudging acceptance of unwanted noise, it’s time for peace-and-quiet advocates to push back on public lands.

“By stepping back and re-assessing where snowmobiling really makes sense,” the Wildlands Alliance says, “winter travel planning is an opportunity to zone the backcountry and reduce user conflicts. However, without a strong rule to guide this process, winter travel planning can’t live up to its full potential.”

Ben Dodge, director of 10th Mountain Huts, acknowledges that noise conditions have improved at many of the huts, particularly those located on the White River National Forest, which was one of the first to implement a winter-travel management plan that effectively addresses snowmobiles.

The 10th Mountain recommends amending the current guidelines, which today allow for open use unless otherwise signed. This approach, Dodge said, should be reversed.

“Instead,” he said, “the rule should require a ‘closed unless designated open’ approach, which would be more effective because it would be consistent with summer rules (for off-road vehicle use) and easier for users to follow and the agency to enforce.”

Instead of providing noisy motors with “open areas” that can be larger than an entire ranger district, or upwards of a million acres, Dodge suggests “open areas” of quiet for more sensitive users as the prevailing ethic.

To add your voice to support peace and quiet national forests, go to and spend a few minutes saving the still, small voice of silence on our public lands.

This is a rare opportunity to help shape Forest Service policy, but there’s not a lot of time. Comments need to be submitted before August 4. If you want to be heard with concerns about being able to hear the silence, now is the time.

“A strong rule today,” Dodge said, “means balanced management of winter recreation tomorrow. Please take 10 minutes to weigh-in on this once-in-a-generation opportunity to impact how the backcountry is managed.”

It’s time to bring balance to the backcountry. It’s time to awaken our hearing for nature, not deaden it against machines.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at


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