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Hazy Days In Our Parks

The air in many national wilderness wonderlands is getting worse. As officials debate controversial new rules to curb pollution, scientists find the sources are surprisingly far-flung

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“We’re at the end of the tailpipe,” says Ken Olson, president of the Friends of Acadia. Pollutants emitted as far away as the Ohio RiverValley cook in the sun as they are blown east, their ozone and acid levels rising as they move. “We get days when the visibility is just terrible [and] palpably polluted,” he says.

And don’t let the SmokyMountains’ name fool you. The nation’s most popular park, at 9.2 million visitors a year, once offered terrific views year-round. The “smoke,” known to the Cherokee long before the Industrial Revolution, is a bluish haze of moisture and natural organic particles that hangs on the hills.

Today, one of the worst pollutant concentrations in any national park has created a more unwelcome haze. Jim Embry, an architect in the tourist-happy town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, north of the park, built a house in 1966 on MountHarrison, facing the park. Two walls are almost all glass, with a scenic vista of majestic 6,593-foot MountLeConte. Good views of the mountains are less and less common, he says. “I am watching them disappear before my eyes.”

The air in California’s Sequoia and KingsCanyonNational Parks is essentially hostage to geography and climate. In the southern Sierra overlooking California’s broad San JoaquinValley, the 865,952-acre pair of parks range from rolling foothills and oak woodlands to granite peaks. Founded in 1890, Sequoia is the nation’s second-oldest national park, after Yellowstone. Its eastern border crosses the summit of Mount Whitney, at 14,494 feet the loftiest point in the 48 conterminous states. The parks hold 30 groves of giant sequoia, the world’s largest tree. Many are thousands of years old, 30 feet or more across at chest level, and taller than a 26-story building.

In winter, when the air is clearest, the vista from a snowy scenic outlook toward the San JoaquinValley seems etched in crystal. From late spring through fall, though, dawn typically brings an ugly sight: a gray-brown murk that rises like a tide as the day warms. The miasma, says air resources specialist Annie Esperanza, even looks like a river as it flows into the park. Natural visibility at Sequoia should be 122 to 158 miles, the EPA says. But summer views average less than 40 miles, and on the worst days can drop below 6.

Though the parks are just 230 miles from Los Angeles, the problem is not Southern California sprawl. Instead, scientists have found that the pollution originates as fresh air off the Pacific picks up pollutants from the urban industrial complex around San FranciscoBay. As the air spreads south into California’s sun-blasted Central Valley, it picks up more fine aerosols, sulfur dioxide, soot, dust and ozone-making nitrogen compounds from fast-growing cities, intense agriculture, busy Interstate 5 and other highways crowded with cars and diesel tractor-trailer rigs. The air is walled in by the Coast Ranges to the west, the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Tehachapi Mountains to the south, creating an eddy of recirculating and concentrated pollution before it wafts into Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

Bill Tweed, Sequoia and KingsCanyon’s chief park naturalist, figures that the southern San JoaquinValley is the nation’s most efficient smog pot. The air, Tweed says, “just cooks and cooks and cooks in a warm, summer, cloudless climate.” To make things worse, the valley’s population is on track to double over the next four decades, to more than seven million. “We’ve already gone from a broth to a stew, and if we’re not careful our stew will turn into a chowder,” Tweed says. “The best way to enjoy a park is to just go out and walk. You must get out of your car to enjoy a park. But on a fair number of days, it is not even healthy to get outside and walk. That is a most direct assault on our mission.”

Ozone, park officials say, has hurt 90 percent of the parks’ Jeffrey pines. So far, the mature giant sequoia appear to be OK, but their seedlings may be suffering. In the Foothill Visitors Center at Ash Mountain, park workers post air advisories for the public and staff. On bad days, a sign tells visitors to avoid extended hikes. On 52 days last year, the parks’ ozone levels exceeded the EPA “unhealthy air” standard of 85 parts per billion for eight hours. And 2004 was a good year; 2002 saw 80 unhealthy days, contributing to a 305-day unhealthy air total for the span 1999-2003—just 68 fewer than Los Angeles.

“I can’t even bring my kids up here unless I know we’re going to have clean air,” says Laura Whitehouse, NPCA’s local representative. Her three children all have severe asthma. In May 2004, thinking the air would be tolerable, she took them into the park. Her 9-year-old son, Aaron, complained of chest pains in the parking lot and plunked down on a bench, wheezing badly. Paramedics had to bring a nebulizer to clear up the boy’s lungs. “It’s sometimes worse up here than in the valley,” Whitehouse says.

In 1967, Bill Tweed was 18 and working as a bellboy at the lodge at Sequoia and KingsCanyon. With July 4 coming up, veteran employees let him in on a local tradition: load up backpacks with beer and other refreshments and scale Moro Rock, a bald monolithic knob near park headquarters. For generations, its lordly 6,725-foot-high view across the San JoaquinValley to the west had provided a granite throne for simultaneously looking down on fireworks spouting from Fresno, Visalia, Dinuba and other communities. But that year not a flicker was to be seen. “Everybody said it had been happening more and more often,” Tweed recalls. Within a few years, the Fourth of July climb was kaput, killed by haze.

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