Even in “pristine” national parks, the air's not clear Mesa Verde National Park is facing a serious problem - air pollution. (Thinkstock)
Even in “pristine” national parks, the air's not clear
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If you leave your car behind and join a ranger-led hike in Southwest Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, you'll find yourself at a spot where the scrubby pinyon-juniper forest drops off. It falls into a sandstone chasm. It reveals a maze of 800-year-old stone dwellings. They are wedged beneath an overhang in the canyon wall. They're so well preserved that it's easy to imagine you've stepped back in time. And that nothing has changed in this high desert landscape since the Ancestral Puebloans built these chambers. They were built in the 12th century.
 
But there's a modern problem. It is plaguing Mesa Verde and dozens of other national parks. It's air pollution. Mesa Verde lies downwind of several coal-fired power plants. They release nitrogen, mercury and sulfur into the air. Huge natural gas fields lurk to the south. These belch methane. And as nearby towns and cities grow, everyday activities like driving increase levels of harmful ozone. Hundreds of years ago, Ancestral Puebloans would have been able to look out from Mesa Verde. They could see views that stretched 170 miles. Today, haze reduces those views.  They are just 66 miles on the worst days.
 
"Air pollution knows no boundaries," says Ulla Reeves. She is Clean Air Campaign Manager with the National Parks Conservation Association. It is a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of parks. "It reaches many, many miles away from the source." In Mesa Verde, one of the sources of pollution is Las Vegas. That city is 500 miles away.
 
An analysis was done last year. The NPCA found that even parks with the most protection under the Clear Air Act continue to experience pollution. The parks include icons like Mesa Verde, Everglades, Yosemite, Acadia and Sequoia.  The pollution can affect wildlife and human health, as well as the climate. According to the National Park Service's data, ozone levels on the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains, for example, are nearly twice those in nearby cities like Atlanta. Up to 90 percent of black cherry trees in the park (depending on location) have sickly yellow leaves and other signs of ozone damage. Visitors with asthma can have trouble breathing. In California, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks regularly have ozone pollution that exceeds 70 parts per billion. The number is the standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
 
The federal government has long recognized that air pollution doesn't stop at park borders. In 1999, the EPA created a regulation called the Regional Haze Rule. It is designed to return visibility in 156 national parks and wilderness areas back to "natural" conditions. The plan is to cut emissions from polluters like coal-fired power plants. The rule only tackles visibility. But "the pollutants that affect visibility can also affect ecosystems and human health," says John Vimont. He is chief of the research and monitoring branch of the National Park Service's Air Resources Division.
 
The rule has played an important role. It has gotten some facilities to adopt cleaner technologies. Over the last 10 years, average visibility in Great Smoky Mountains National Park has risen. It has gone from 20 miles to 46 miles, says Reeves. But there's still a long way to go. Visibility in the Great Smoky Mountains should be 112 miles on the best days. Part of the reason for the slow progress is because the rule is largely interpreted and carried out at the state level, rather than by federal agencies. Many states have struggled to muster resources and meet deadlines.
 
That's why the EPA is currently working on a series of changes. They are meant to strengthen the Regional Haze Rule. The changes will force states to keep more robust data on their progress. The states must submit regular plans. That is to ensure they're meeting legal requirements and cutting emissions. At the same time, the changes allow states even more time to implement their next round of plans.
 
Even if the Regional Haze Rule is strengthened, though, it'll still take a long time for the air in national parks to return to pre-industrial quality. Under standards imposed a decade ago, the NPCA estimates that the soonest that goal could be achieved is the year 2064. Thirty out of 157 national parks are predicted to return to natural conditions by that year. Others, like Arizona's Saguaro National Park, might take much longer. It could be 750 years. Again, these dates don't take into account the latest changes.  Those could speed up recovery time. But they're still a sobering reminder. It is proof that even in some of the most protected landscapes on the planet, the effects of human activity can linger well beyond our own lifetimes.
 
In Mesa Verde, natural resource manager George San Miguel is keenly aware of the effect that air pollution has on the park's visitors. Airborne nitrogen and sulfur are deposited into the soil. This leads to more invasive weeds and fewer native grasses. Methane hovering overhead accelerates climate change. And then, of course, there are the views.
 
"One of the things we try to instill in visitors is a sense of going back in time," San Miguel says. "We want visitors to immerse themselves in the past. To put themselves in the sandals of the Native Americans that lived here, so to speak." To do that, he explains, you need to be able to see a long distance. This is because the Ancestral Puebloans likely used distant desert towers as navigation aids. Until Mesa Verde's natural visibility is restored, visitors remain solidly planted in the 21st century.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is it difficult to stop air pollution in national parks?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (19)
  • joonhee0415-byo
    6/15/2016 - 02:56 p.m.

    It is difficult to stop air pollution because you can't see it in the air. Another reason why it is difficult to stop air pollution because you don't know where it goes. It can Separate in the air and be to high in the air. My last reason why it is so difficult to stop air pollution is because air pollution can just move if someone tries to erase the air pollution.

  • Eric0221-YYCA
    6/15/2016 - 07:24 p.m.

    The pristine national parks had been getting serious problems with air pollution which people had been making a lot of the air pollution that is near a lot of the national parks and affecting the national parks. The air pollution would be very difficult to stop because harmful gas can dye the color of the leaves that would affect the animal's food. The national parks had been affect from the harmful gas produced by nearby cities and polluting the air and dying down the plants. The cities that are producing the gas can park the national parks to become a place were no one can be able to visit with the air pollution around the national park.
    Critical Thinking Question: Why is it difficult to stop air pollution in national parks?
    Answer: I know why it is difficult to stop air pollution in national parks because air pollution can travel far away from its source but to make the air pollution to stop, people would stop using things that can cause air pollution.

  • william1108-yyca
    6/16/2016 - 01:57 p.m.

    I can't believe that even in an unspoiled place the air can stil be bad. But then that must mean that the air must be very hard to breathe in and people can't breathe very well. But I wonder, how do pristine places wit good air go with bad air. It is very suspicious. Maybe one day I will find out and learn more about all this.

  • ben0424-yyca-byo
    6/16/2016 - 02:21 p.m.

    This is a very bad problem. Pollution is becoming worse than ever. We really have to stop this problem. After a decade of telling people to help stop polluting and warnings of what will happen, people are still polluting. Even a movie came out showing what might happen in the future. We really need to take more steps for this. People won't stop so we might need to find a way to force them to stop. This is a major problem that will be really hard to solve.
    Critical Thinking Question Answer: It is difficult to stop air pollution in national parks because of the many different causes of air pollution and the pollution that is in the ground.

  • sean1116-byo
    6/22/2016 - 02:52 p.m.

    It truly sad to see that there are not many parks with clean air. Almost everywhere has polluted air. I wish there was a way to help clean the air of the parks and keep them as clean as possible. Polluted air could destroy national parks. Also many tourists may visit these parks and might breathe in the polluted air. Also polluted air can weaken many animals that breathe air. Also this can change their eating habits. I see why it is hard to keep the air clean around parks. There are so many factories around the world that produce very harmful gasses.

  • keewon0801-byo
    6/29/2016 - 02:30 p.m.

    CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION:

    Because the wild life in the park will perish if we don't do anything about it. The trees will die out, the animals will perish, and us humans will either get cancer or die. Pollution is a very bad thing but ozone depletion is worse.It'll kill life much faster than pollution. So we need to think before we act. My opinion is Las Vegas is the one that is making the ozone depletion. Not sure but that is my opinion.

  • cheyanv-
    8/22/2016 - 01:16 p.m.

    It is difficult to stop air pollution because it can go higher into the air and separate to other regions. Another reason is because you cant see air pollution and you do not know where it is in the air. One last reason is because the big cities are getting bigger and bigger which means more air pollution that we cant stop.

    CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION

  • devinf-rey
    9/07/2016 - 10:11 p.m.

    It is difficult to stop air pollution in national parks due to the fact that air pollution knows no boundaries. This has the meaning that air pollution travels and where ever the wind carries it, that's where it ends up no matter how "pristine" or unspoiled the area is.

  • gwend-rey
    9/08/2016 - 11:27 a.m.

    You cant tell where air pollution is going to go because it knows no boundaries.

  • aishal-rey
    9/08/2016 - 11:43 a.m.

    by leaving the car behind when you do trails you can't take them away because that how they get home

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