Pollution Defiles Air Quality in California’s National Parks

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

August 14, 2015

I was so excited to be making my first-ever camping trip to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. My wife and I would inhale pure mountain air, scented with sequoias and Jeffrey pines. We would revel in the soaring granite spears and peaks, crenellated ridges and gleaming snowfields of the Sierra Nevada, all bathed in ethereal splendor, John Muir’s beloved “Range of Light.”

We lived then in Santa Ana, in the bowels of Orange County, deeply ensconced in the smog-blighted Los Angeles basin. The same Orange County that was home to the Magic Kingdom, a.k.a. the “happiest place on earth” – Disneyland. The same which used to be touted as “Smog-Free Orange County,” but which, by the time I moved there in 1990, was derided as “Orange-Free Smog County.”

Having moved to Southern California from the drylands and long vistas of New Mexico and the Southern Rockies, I vividly remember my keen dismay at just how wretched the visibility in Orange County was – most days the snowcapped San Gabriel Range 30 miles to the north was hidden behind an impenetrable veil of smog. And I and millions more had to breathe this crud!

Many mornings, even office buildings in downtown Anaheim and Fullerton were barely visible, though weather forecasters assured us this was the marine layer. Even in the afternoon though, after the marine layer had burned off, visibility didn’t improve much, and we were subjected to “hazy sunshine” day after day: that infamous L.A. smog that late night talk show host Johnny Carson once joked about acidly. Even though air quality had supposedly improved immensely since the 50s, the thick blanket of smog was still stifling, and still harmful to health, mental as well as physical.

Hence the longing for great breaths of fresh, limpid, cool Sierra mountain air and long views through azure skies.

We drove north out of the L.A. basin and across the Tehachapi Range on Interstate 5. As we descended several thousand feet in elevation down “The Grapevine,” dropping into Kern County and the southern Central Valley, also known as the San Joaquin Valley, I was appalled at how dense the smog became again. It was my first encounter with the notorious and worsening smog of the Central Valley, aggravated by fugitive dust-inducing agricultural operations and galloping growth.

Finally, passing through Tulare and Visalia, I began to catch tantalizing glimpses of the lofty Sierra Nevada through the layer of polluted air. And at last we began ascending through the rumpled Sierra foothills and up into the mountains proper. The temperature cooled. We wound our way up past the copses of oaks and into the shade of the pines, cedars and firs. I thought we were headed for heaven on earth. But alas, even the heavens were blighted.

Standing at an overlook above 7,000 ft. elevation, I was deeply disheartened to gaze upon – not deep blue, azure skies pierced by sawtooth peaks – but an unmistakable whitish haze. Later that evening, a park ranger confirmed what I suspected: even the once-pristine Range of Light was also a victim of California’s inescapable smog. On summer afternoons, ozone levels even in the stands of Giant Sequoias thousands of years old exceeded federal health standards. Welcome to the blighted California of the late 20th century.

The situation hasn’t improved in the 21st century, and projected, unending growth in the numbers of people and cars clogging California will not help matters one bit.

Smog over the Sierra Nevadas
Smog blights the Sierra Nevada Range of California

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) recently listed four of California’s most revered national parks among America’s 12 national parks most harmed by air pollution. In its new report card, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park and Joshua Tree National Park were all listed in the dirtiest dozen. Sequoia/Kings Canyon was the most harmed park in the entire United States. California’s parks were the only ones in the dirtiest dozen to earn “F” grades for unhealthy air.

Wow, my own personal observations and disappointment of a quarter-century ago have been corroborated by this independent study. But there’s no solace in this news.

NPCA’s report indicates that, overall, there has been some improvement in the air quality of America’s cherished national parks, but in some, like the dirtiest dozen listed, “hazy and polluted air continued to plague the skies, especially during the summer season” – precisely when they are most heavily visited.

Top 12 Parks Most Harmed By Air Pollution: Report CardAll 12 parks on the dirtiest dozen list received a “D” in one or more of the “healthy air,” “seeing clearly” or “changing climates” categories. Haze impairs visibility to such an extent that visitors frequently lose up to 50 miles of scenery, reported the NPCA. And in California’s dirtiest national parks, for at least one month a year, visitors and park staff are exposed to air that is unhealthy, found the report.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that each year nearly 300 million visitors to our national parks and wilderness areas are denied the spectacular vistas they came to see. During much of the year a curtain of white or brown haze chokes the air, blurring and blocking the view. Most of this haze is unnatural – manmade air pollution – often transported hundreds of miles from its source by the wind. The typical visual range in most of the western states is 60-90 miles; this is only about half of what it would be without artificial air pollution. In the East, the situation is even worse: typical visibility is 15-30 miles, only about one-third of the visual range under natural conditions.

This unnatural haze is caused when sunlight strikes tiny particles of pollution in the air. Some of the light is absorbed by these particles, while another portion is scattered away before reaching an observer. More particulate pollution means more absorption and scattering of light, which reduces the clarity and dulls the color of what we see.

According to the EPA, these haze-forming air pollutants originate from a variety of natural and manmade sources. Natural sources include windblown dust, as well as smoke and soot from wildland fires, which have been increasing in number and size in recent decades from a century of forest mismanagement (which allowed combustible “fuels” to accumulate) and now too from a warming, drying climate. Manmade sources include motor vehicles, fossil-fuel power plants (especially those burning coal), industrial fuel burning and manufacturing operations. These latter manmade sources of course are all larger when population is larger.EPA air quality map

To reduce this haze, the EPA says we must reduce emissions from power plants and industrial sources and exhaust from autos, trucks and buses. This is much more feasible under a stabilized population than a continually growing one. Perhaps I should have said “only feasible.”

Someday, I’d like to visit Sequoia-Kings Canyon again and actually get to see what God made and John Muir saw more than a century ago. It must have been awe-inspiring, judging from Muir’s sublime prose.

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