Air Needs Freshening in Most U.S. National Park Units

June 26, 2019
An air quality technician checks equipment at a monitoring site in Sequoia National Park, which is downwind of many air pollution sources and has some of the worst air pollution of any national park in the United States. Image: National Park Service. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Air Needs Freshening in Most U.S. National Park Units

By Joseph A. Davis

Ah, fresh air! That’s why we go to national parks, right? Well (cough, cough), we need to talk about that.

A report published in May finds that 96 percent of national parks have air pollution problems. Very likely, some of those are in your region or locality, and are worth reporting on.

The report, published by the National Parks Conservation Association, or NPCA, looked closely at the whole National Park System, which includes not only the 61 units officially designated as parks, but also all the national monuments, battlefields, historic sites, memorials, seashores, recreation areas, etc. — about 417 units in all.

The study is already making news. It has prompted coverage in The Guardian, Yale Environment 360, USA TODAY, High Country News, Grist and Smithsonian magazine, to name a few outlets. But the lead may be that with all the Trump environmental rollbacks, air may be getting worse, not better.  


Why it matters

In a typical year, some 330 million people visit National Park System units (NPCA just calls them all “parks”). Their health matters. But 85 percent of park units, 354 of them, have air that is unhealthy to breathe at times. There are times, for instance, when the air pollution in California’s Joshua Tree National Park is worse than that in Los Angeles.

Let’s take just one pollutant — ozone, the most harmful gas in what is called photochemical smog. Ozone makes breathing harder by inflaming people’s lungs, causing asthma attacks, and making eyes and throats burn. Now try jogging or hiking up a mountain in that. 

And it’s worse for sensitive populations like young children and old people. And ozone hurts wildlife as well as people.

NPCA found that 87 of the 354 parks with unhealthy air had ozone levels of significant concern.


The study found that nine of 10 U.S. parks, and 

virtually all of the parks in the lower 48 states, 

have impaired visibility from haze 

caused by smog, dust and soot.


How about inspiring vistas? Don’t count on it. NPCA also found impaired visibility in 89 percent of parks, and in virtually all of the parks in the lower 48 states. The haze that lowers visibility comes from both gases like smog and particulates (dust and soot).

Other kinds of pollution, in addition to the above, can harm wildlife and natural resources in the parks.


The backstory

Pollution in parks is not a new problem. While people were gasping in cities, it seemed a lesser priority. But the 1977 Clean Air Act amendments included new provisions mandating “prevention of significant deterioration” in ostensibly pristine areas. 

After a lot of monitoring and study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the landmark “Regional Haze Rule” in 1999. It listed 156 park and wilderness areas across the country where protection was required (see a list, a map and cool visuals).

Under the rule, states were required to come up with plans to protect these areas and to revise their plans every 10 years. The first plans weren’t really due until 2018. But in 2017, the Trump EPA began ongoing efforts to “reform” the regional haze program by turning over authority to states.


Story ideas

  • What is the air quality in nearby parks that your audience cares about? What are the particular pollution problems and pollutants?
  • Visit your local park at times of high pollution and talk to visitors about how it affects their experience. Talk to park managers. Talk to local park “friends of” groups.
  • Where does the pollution come from that is affecting your park? Are there multiple sources? How far away are they? Why don’t existing or normal pollution controls work well enough?
  • What is being done to fix the problem? Is there a regional haze plan covering your park? What is the status of that plan? What other air pollution control efforts are involved?


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 26. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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