Signficant Air Pollution Plagues Almost All U.S. National Parks

Ozone and other pollutants are obscuring views, hurting plants and causing health concerns for visitors at 96 percent of parks

Joshua Tree Haze
Haze at Joshua Tree National Park. NPS

National parks are places people often go to get away from the problems of urban life. But a new report from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) reveals that a trip to the Rocky Mountains or Yosemite won’t help you escape one major problem of the city: air pollution. According to the report, 96 percent of the United States' 416 national parks have significant air quality issues.

Researchers found that at times, 85 percent of parks have air that is unhealthy to breathe, reports Earther's Yessenia Fuentes. About 89 percent of parks also suffer from haze, which reduces iconic views. At 88 percent of the parks, the problem is bad enough to affect sensitive plants and animals. For example, the study points out that at high altitudes, nitrogen from air pollution deposited by rain is causing Rocky Mountain National Park to lose its flowering plants, which are being replaced by grasses.

The most impacted spots are some of the most popular. California’s parks in particular suffer from poor air quality, according to the study. Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Joshua Tree national parks and Mojave National Preserve have dangerous levels of air pollution for more than two months per year, mostly in the summer season when they see the most visitors.

The culprit is primarily ozone, a pollutant that can trigger asthma attacks, irritate the throat and lungs and cause breathing problems in both the elderly and children. Gabrielle Canon at The Guardian reports that a study released last year in the journal Science Advances found that the average ozone concentration in 33 of the most-visited national parks was the same as those found in the 20 largest urban areas in the U.S. Currently, 330 million people visit U.S. national parks each year, meaning millions of susceptible people are being exposed to unhealthy conditions.

“The poor air quality in our national parks is both disturbing and unacceptable,” Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the NPCA says in a press release. “Nearly every single one of our more than 400 national parks is plagued by air pollution. If we don’t take immediate action to combat this, the results will be devastating and irreversible.”

Taking action means addressing the primary cause of the bad air, most of which does not originate in the parks themselves. The biggest sources of pollution come from coal-fired power plants, transportation, and oil and gas development. Transitioning to cleaner energy and transportation are the primary ways to reduce air pollution levels.

While there are some signs that coal-powered plants are losing steam, emissions actually rose 1.8 percent in 2018 after steady declines during the previous decade. And there are concerns that air pollution will get worse if the U.S. continues its current policies. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement action against polluters has dropped by 85 percent in the last few years. Without action on these larger issues, the outlook for the parks remains hazy.

Canon reports that a 1999 policy, the Regional Haze Rule requires states to come up with plans for addressing pollution in the parks by 2021 and implement the strategies by 2028. The ultimate goal is to return parks to pre-pollution levels by 2064. But so far little progress has been made, and some parks won’t reach those levels for hundreds of years at the current pace of cleanup.

But national parks are beloved by people across the ideological spectrum, and Stephanie Kodish, clean air program director for the NPCA, tells Canon she thinks pointing out the impact on the nation’s crown jewels might spur everyone to action. “I hope that people think about our national parks as bipartisan unifiers,” she says. “That the connection to our national parks is one that can help preserve our future, our history, our culture. For the American people, they should serve as a reminder – and a warning cry.”

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