96 percent of America's parks are plagued by air pollution

96 percent of America's parks are plagued by air pollution
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You excitedly approach an overlook, but as you gaze out, your view is blanketed with haze, almost entirely washing out the colors and sharpness of the landscape. The air is so thick, it’s hard to take a deep breath.

You might think I’m talking about Los Angeles or another major city, but no. This is how many visitors experience the Grand Canyon for the first time. And sadly, for park visitors across the country, this is the new normal.

In fact, 33 of America’s most-visited national parks are as polluted as our 20 largest cities. A recent report from my organization, the National Parks Conservation Association, shows the effects of air pollution on our national parks are even more widespread and distressing than we thought. Nearly every single one (96 percent) of our more than 400 national parks is plagued by air pollution problems. Eighty-five percent of our parks have air that is unhealthy to breathe at times and 89 percent of parks are suffering from haze pollution, while soils and waters in 88 percent of our parks are significantly affected by air pollution, which in turn negatively affects sensitive species and their habitat.

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Even more troubling are the effects of climate change across the entire National Park System. Our report found that climate change is a significant concern for 80 percent of our national parks, although all parks are affected to some degree.

Portions of coastal parks like Everglades are eroding into the sea from rising sea levels, which are also inundating freshwater habitats threatening rare tropical orchids and pine forests. Forested parks like Rocky Mountain and Yosemite are experiencing record wildfires. Desert parks like Joshua Tree and Grand Canyon often lack adequate water to sustain their plant and animal life. And in Mount Rainier, melting of the Nisqually glacier is directly responsible for infrastructure damage along the park’s historic Nisqually Road. Our national parks are suffering.

Although the Clean Air Act has steadily reduced pollution over the past five decades, in just two years the Trump administration’s policies have contributed to reversing this trend, prioritizing polluters’ interests over the health of our people and parks. From gutting air and climate regulations to eliminating environmental protections for our public lands and communities, the magnitude and speed at which the administration is working to rollback air, water and wildlife safeguards is unprecedented and potentially irreversible. 

Today, air pollution is on the rise, enforcement actions against polluters have plummeted by 85 percent, and now scientists project that we are facing a climate crisis much sooner than previously thought.

As temperatures continue to rise, air pollution will increase and extreme weather events will increasingly harm our national parks and wild lands, threatening the safety of their visitors, wildlife, cultural resources and surrounding communities. It’s more critical than ever before to defend clean air and climate protections for the sake of our national parks and the millions of people who visit and live nearby.

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National parks tell the stories of our nation’s diverse history and provide unforgettable experiences for millions of visitors each year. Given what our nation stands to lose if air pollution continues to wreak havoc on our parks and people at this rate, we must act now to curb pollution and ensure these places are more resilient to our changing climate.

Fortunately, there are clear and feasible solutions to reduce pollution: defending critical clean air and climate laws, holding polluters responsible and empowering people and communities to speak up for their fundamental right to clean air and a healthy climate. Congress too must defend our nation’s clean air laws, hold the Environmental Protection Agency accountable to their mission, and act on the climate crisis now.

When parks were established over a century ago, I imagine our founders didn’t foresee the level at which we would be fighting air pollution. But we are, and we will, as long as it takes to clear the air and ensure these parks, their plants and wildlife — and all who visit them — have the clean air and safe climate they need and deserve.

Theresa Pierno is the president and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association.