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Air Pollution Is Killing the Views in National Parks

So you finally made it to the top of the mountain. Enjoy the air up there.
Air pollution at Keys View, in California's Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: Joshua Tree National Park/Flickr)

Air pollution at Keys View, in California's Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: Joshua Tree National Park/Flickr)

Americans visit national parks to get away from all the noise and anxiety of modern life. But unfortunately, air pollution knows no boundaries. "Our national parks are America's greatest places, so you would think these places would have the most protected environments, including clean air," says Ulla Reeves, a campaign manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group. "But national parks are not immune to the problem of air pollution."

In addition to health concerns, poor air quality in most of the United States' national parks has also affected what should be spectacular landscape views, according to a new report from the National Parks Conservation Association. The air pollution can be traced back to cars, as well as gas, oil, and coal-burning power plants mostly located outside of the parks.

As a fix, the association wants the Obama administration to strengthen the Regional Haze Rule, which requires state and federal agencies to develop plans for clearing air pollution in national parks and wilderness areas—whether the source is inside or outside the protected area—by 2064. More specifically, the association is advocating for the Regional Haze Rule to specify what options states must consider while trying to comply with the rule, like requiring power plants to install emissions-scrubbing technology.

Among the report's findings:

  • On average, haze from air pollution reduces the views at national parks by 50 miles.
  • In Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, and Saguaro in Arizona, haze cuts visibility by more than 70 miles.
  • Out of the 48 parks the association studied, 36 had days during which their levels of ozone—a harmful chemical that's the main component of smog—were "moderate" or worse, according to the national Air Quality Index. Moderate levels of ozone can still irritate some sensitive people, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Plus, ozone levels tend to be worst in the summer—many parks' high season—because ozone is created near the ground when emissions from vehicles and power plants interact with sunlight.
  • According to data from 2008 to 2012, the worst-off parks for healthy air were Yosemite, Sequoia, Joshua Tree, and Kings Canyon National Parks, which are all in California.

In the last few decades, the U.S. has made great strides in reducing air pollution. The air quality in parks is better now than it was before the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the report acknowledges. That's testimony perhaps to how well such legislation can work—and its potential to truly clear the air in the decades to come.