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Unhealthy Air and Hazy Skies: How Pollution Is Affecting National Parks

The National Parks Conservation Association's new report recommends mitigating pollution and transitioning to clean energy, with an emphasis on fair solutions.
Upper Ouzel Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

In Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, increasing nitrogen levels have resulted in grasses replacing some flowering plants.

A new report released this week by the National Parks Conservation Association found that nearly all of America's national parks are dealing with significant air pollution.

The study looked at pollution in four areas: unhealthy air, harm to nature, hazy skies, and climate change. Using National Park Service data, researchers found that, overall, 96 percent of America's 417 national park sites are significantly impacted in at least one of the categories. They found that 85 percent of parks have unhealthy air; pollution is harming nature in 88 percent of parks; 89 percent have haze pollution; and climate change is a significant concern for 80 percent.

This pollution negatively impacts the roughly 330 million people who visit America's national parks each year, and has the potential to trigger asthma attacks or cause other health effects for certain vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly. In addition to harmful inhalation for visitors, especially during peak visitation during the summer months, pollution has damaged waterways and wildlife habitats. The report mentions Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, where flowering plants are being replaced by grasses as a result of increasing nitrogen levels.

Fossil fuels and industrial air pollution are, in large part, to blame for rising air pollution, according to the report. While industrial activity isn't originating from within the parks, the resulting pollution can travel hundreds of miles. The report also notes that environmental hazards like air pollution are more likely to be concentrated in marginalized communities.

Pollution has gotten worse under the Trump administration, as enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency has decreased and the government continues to eliminate environmental protections. The administration has also specifically aimed rollbacks at public lands, including expanding fossil fuel exploration.

The report points to the NPCA's commitment "to a future for our parks that is grounded in principles of justice and equity." This is noteworthy: National parks have historically been largely inaccessible for certain segments of the American population. A 2018 report examining multiple studies found that less than 5 percent of visitors to national park sites were Hispanic or Asian American, and less than 2 percent of visitors were African American, reasons for lower participation rates include discrimination and socioeconomic resources.

What could fix the parks' pollution problem? Mitigating fossil fuel use and transitioning to clean energy, the report says, emphasizing "fair solutions." Some of the proposed solutions, such as creating more public transit to increase access to national parks, would target both pollution and unequal park access.

The report also highlights the stories of environmental justice activists, including Akiima Price, a Washington, D.C.-based activist who has worked to make nature more accessible. Price notes that it is important for disadvantaged children to experience nature, but because asthma rates are higher for those of lower socioeconomic status and people of color, it isn't always safe for them to do so. According to Price, the first step to solving pollution problems to create diverse cohorts to advocate for environmental rights.

"Climate change doesn't cause environmental injustice. It reveals it," Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor and director of community engagement, environmental justice, and health at the University of Maryland–College Park, told the NPCA. "We must invest in fighting climate change, and we must do a better job of equity in disaster preparation, response, and recovery to protect people who don't have a voice."