Advocacy group finds significant pollution at most national park sites

'Significant' impacts at Rocky Mountain National Park in three of four categories

A waning full moon over the peaks in Upper Beaver Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park.
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A new national report on the health of national parks found that 96% are plagued by significant air pollution problems. In Rocky Mountain National Park, pollution issues are ranked as being of “significant” concern in three out of four environmental categories that were considered.

The report, “Polluted Parks: How America is Failing to  Protect Our National Parks, People and Planet From Air Pollution,” was issued by the National Parks Conservation Association. It evaluated data concerning the health of 417 national parks, sites and monuments under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service.

The association analyzed a range of data sources, leaning heavily on National Park Service information to evaluate the sites for air pollution in four categories: harm to nature, hazy skies, unhealthy air and climate change. In each category, park air and climate pollution impacts were classified as significant, moderate, or little to no concern.

“The poor air quality in our national parks is both disturbing and unacceptable. Nearly every single one of our more than 400 national parks is plagued by air pollution. If we don’t take immediate action to combat this, the results will be devastating and irreversible,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.

For Rocky Mountain National Park, visibility was rated as “moderate,” while the other three categories all were deemed of “significant” concern.

All 13 national park sites in Colorado evaluated for the report shared a “moderate” rating in terms of visibility. And all 13 also rated as being of “significant” concern on the issue of climate change effects.

Other key findings include:

  • 85% of national parks have air that is unhealthy to breathe at times.
  • 89% of parks suffer from haze pollution.
  • Soils and waters in 88% of parks are affected by air pollution, which in turn impacts sensitive species and habitat.
  • Climate change is a significant concern for 80% of national parks, though all parks are affected to some level.

‘Grave, real’ stories

“When you look at the report, the thing that should come out as thematic and alarming to us all is there’s 96% of the parks suffering from pollution problems,” said Stephanie Kodish, Clean Air Program director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Some are significant in just one category, but some are of concern in every single category. And which category is of most concern depends on the specific park.”

She noted that different parks will show different sensitivities, based on a wide range of factors.

“Whether you’re talking about Rocky Mountain National Park or talking about glaciers in Washington state, or Alaska, or you’re talking about seed propagation so that the namesake tree of Joshua Tree National Park is able to continue to propagate, different animal and plant species and different ecosystems react differently to those changes,” she said.

“All of these different vignettes tell of these grave, real, to-date stories about the impacts that our actions are having. It’s a mistake to think these are things we need to look out at some point in the distant future. These are actual impacts happening right now.”

She cited the findings of the Rocky Mountain National Park Initiative, launched in 2004, a joint effort by the Colorado Department of Public Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service, to study and recommend strategies related to air quality. Its primary focus has been atmospheric nitrogen deposition, with ozone and regional haze also targets of the project.

A public comment period on a draft for an interim 2017 report on the initiative closed last week, The summary of that draft report states that “There is clear scientific evidence that ecosystem health on the east side of RMNP is declining.” It further states “Trends indicate that nitrogen deposition has not been reversed, but remains stable, and has not increased or decreased in recent years.”

And although it found an interim milestone goal for reduced nitrogen deposition in 2017 had not been attained, a “nitrogen deposition contingency plan” will nevertheless not be triggered, at this time.

The National Parks Conservation Association on May 9 submitted a nine-page comment on that draft report which stated,” We are deeply disappointed to learn that the milestones are still not being achieved and that instead of addressing the shortcomings by triggering a contingency plan to take deliberate steps to achieve the milestones, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission are recommending business as usual.

“We urge you to reconsider and instead advance contingency measures to improve Rocky Mountain National Park’s deposition problem.”

Despite what she sees as a lack of adequate action in the case of that issue for RMNP, Kodish said, “I have faith in people and I have faith in the bipartisan love of our national parks, and I think that they have long served as a beacon of what is best about our country.

“And places like Rocky Mountain represent things we want to preserve that are cultural and natural and tell our history. It’s the same sources of pollution that are harming our parks, as are harming our communities and devastating our planet with climate change.”

Call for change

Kodish had praise for the advocacy of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, and his support for Senate Bill 181, which made sweeping changes on how oil and gas are regulated, setting the protection of public health and the environment as a priority when considering oil and gas projects.

She was not as pleased with the course set on energy and environmental policy by President Donald Trump.

“It’s ridiculous really, that the science is crystal clear,” she said. “The experience in national parks and communities that we are experiencing make very clear what is happening, and the only actions that this administration is taking is to further industry interests at the expense of the commons.

“I think that is very clear and the rollbacks and direction this administration is taking our federal laws and policies must change and change quickly.”

Amy Roberts, who works in Boulder as executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, is quoted in the report on the impacts that she has seen locally, tied specifically to climate change.

“Winter starts late and ends early. When you don’t have that snowpack, then rivers aren’t full, and summer activities around paddling, rafting and fishing are all impacted,” Roberts said. “Our industry was established by companies whose founders believe they have a responsibility to the landscape and to preserve national parks for future generations.”

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