Even in “pristine” national parks, the air's not clear
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.

Source URL: https://www.tweentribune.com/article/tween56/even-pristine-national-parks-airs-not-clear/

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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)
  • annam-rey
    9/08/2016 - 11:53 a.m.

    EVEN IN “PRISTINE” NATIONAL PARKS, THE AIR'S NOT CLEAR
    CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
    Why is it difficult to stop air pollution in national parks?

    There are many reasons that visitors to Nation Parks lose the experience of going back in time while experiencing a Nation Park. Air pollution has a major effect on our environment, including National Parks. Sine many parks are located near big cities or in urban areas, all the pollution drifts over to these parks. There is no way stop this pollution from ruining these views, but we can get close. The federal government is taking a stand against this pollution and putting up even more regulations to keep the air clean. The most recent regulation on the states that are home to these parks, is the Regional Haze Rule. This puts restrictions on the use of coal-fired power plants. With these new restrictions, they hope to have National Parks return to their pristine condition. That is unlikely to happen for a long time for the NPCA estimates that some parks will take up to 750 to return to its original form. And that’s only if there is absolutely no new pollutions added to the air. With these hard to accomplish expectations, National Parks will not be as enjoyable as they have been before.

  • briellel-rey
    9/13/2016 - 10:44 a.m.

    Because it is everywhere and people are in the way.

  • tiffanyh-ste
    9/19/2016 - 11:51 a.m.

    It's hard to stop air pollution because people are just so used to doing the things they do on a normal basis they don't really think about it. You can't see what's going into the air so you never tell how much is actually in the air.

  • giavannac-orv
    9/23/2016 - 08:13 a.m.

    You can't see it and u don't know where it goes.

  • vcara-dav
    10/02/2016 - 10:34 a.m.

    In response to "Even In 'Pristine' National Parks, The Air Is Not Clear," I agree that it is difficult to stop pollution in national parks, but it needs to be done. One reason I agree with this is because as cities get bigger, more cars are driven and that increases air pollution. Also, factories from miles away are producing so much harmful gasses like mercury and sulfur, that it is affecting national parks. All of this had been happening for so long that it will be hard and take a long time to return the air to its original state.

    Another reason is that the national parks are a place where people are supposed to feel transported back in time, and this is ruined as long as the air pollution continues. It says in the article that, "Air pollution knows no boundaries... It reaches many, many miles away from its source." -"Even In 'Pristine' National Parks, The Air Is Not Clear" This just proves the issue needs to be solved. Even though national parks may still have cleaner air than some places, I believe this issue really needs to be fixed.

  • isaiahc-rey
    10/03/2016 - 02:49 p.m.

    Because even driving your car down the rode creates carbon and other gases that cause air pollution.

  • myahr-orv
    10/05/2016 - 02:25 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.

  • alliet-rey
    10/10/2016 - 06:00 p.m.

    because people could leave trash and and you cant see air so it would be hARD TO STOP IT OR CONTROLL it.

  • sierrab-ste
    11/01/2016 - 01:28 p.m.

    It is pretty much impossible to fix and stop air pollution because you don't always know it is taking place. Places like this, that we never thought had air pollution has it.

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