Californians can be absolutely obnoxious when touting their scenic wonders and environmental creds. But when it comes to the crown jewels of the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, the reality is as ugly as L.A. smog.
In fact, these two national parks are not only among the most polluted of any across the United States, they also suffer from an almost total lack of progress in cleaning up the mess. And the two parks are many decades off track from achieving the goals of the Clean Air Act to restore them to clean air, free of man-made pollution.
The most obvious signs of the continuing impacts are the almost ubiquitous summer hazes at Yosemite and in the weak Jeffery pines dying from ozone pollution that on many days is higher in Sequoia National Park than downtown Los Angeles.
There are many reasons for the serious air pollution problems at these parks, downwind of the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area, but while the California parks are exceptionally impacted, this is not an isolated problem. A report released last year by National Parks Conservation Association found that every one of the 48 national parks with the greatest Clean Air Act protections are plagued by significant air pollution problems, including many in California.
These poor air quality days are not just occasional occurrences, either. Yosemite and Sequoia national parks have several months of bad air quality each summer. Many other parks experience poor air quality, typically during the busy summer season when many visitors pack up the car and head to the parks. And the problem isn’t going away anytime soon, with current protections leaving some parks more than a century away from having clean air.
National parks turn 100 years old this year, and our parks shouldn’t need another century or more to get clean air. But a move by the Obama administration may change that.
In April, the Obama administration proposed a change in course for the Regional Haze Rule, the Clean Air Act program designed to protect national parks and wilderness areas from air pollution. If enacted, these revisions could put parks on a much faster path to clean air.
Most importantly, these revisions include enhancing state accountability for reducing pollution that contributes to national park and wilderness air quality problems, regardless of whether the state has these protected places within its borders. It also requires states to back up their haze plans with more robust analysis, and it expands the roles of the National Park Service and other federal land managers in the planning process for reducing air pollution in parks.
Despite these positive steps, there are shortfalls in the proposed changes that, unless addressed, could impede the progress the Regional Haze Rule is designed to achieve.
These shortfalls include potentially allowing states nearly a decade to avoid cleaning up sources of air pollution specifically identified, and weakening the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency and the public to force corrective action if states fall behind in achieving their pollution reduction obligations.
With a stronger Regional Haze Rule, the National Park Service and the EPA can better hold California’s feet to the fire to develop credible mitigation efforts.
In testimony I gave at the Regional Haze Rule hearings before the EPA in Washington recently, I pointed out research that showed a first effort would be to put sulfate and nitrate scrubbers on the Bay Area tall smokestacks.
Companies don’t spend the money on tall smokestacks unless they are determined to pitch their pollutants safely downwind. Well, they work, and Yosemite and Sequoia as well as other parks and wilderness areas, are the designated dumping grounds for their effluent. Curtailing summer agriculture burning in the San Joaquin Valley is another step we should take.
It’s high time for California to be worthy of our parks.
Thomas A. Cahill is professor emeritus of physics and atmospheric sciences at UC Davis. He initiated and ran haze aerosol programs in national parks from 1977 to 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.