Air Pollution: Our National Parks in Peril
Imagine planning a family vacation to see the many beautiful national parks our country has to offer. The trip culminates with a visit to the Grand Canyon, arguably the United States’ most recognizable landscape. But instead of gazing in awe of the canyon, imagine that the skyline is hazy. Now, in addition to pollution, imagine our national parks with fewer and fewer majestic animals and towering trees.
One of the most overlooked aspects of air pollution is the effect that it is having on our scenic national parks. Landscapes and environments across the country, from Yellowstone to the Great Smoky Mountains, are being polluted with toxins from power plants, mining operations and motor vehicles. Our national parks are a treasured way for all Americans, from all income groups, ages and races, to discover nature, and nearly three hundred million people do so each year. Increasingly, Americans will discover the devastating impacts we are having on nature instead.
The National Parks Conservation Association’s State of the America’s National Parks report from 2011 details the impact that environmental harms, including air and water pollution, have had on the United States’ extensive national park system. 95 percent of all parks have experienced the loss of plant or animal species in recent years. More than half of the parks received an air quality rating of fair, poor or critical. Climate change is affected iconic species of our parks, including the joshua trees of Joshua Tree National Park, and the giant redwoods of Muir Woods. We are in danger of losing national treasures.
Pollution can have a negative effect on not only the natural resources themselves, but the amount of tourism (and thus revenue and jobs) that these national parks produce. If native flora and fauna continue to dwindle, fewer Americans will visit our parks. One of the biggest draws of a park like Yellowstone is the ability to see and interact with nature in its unaltered state, so when natural resources suffer, the economic benefits of our national parks are diminished as well.
The impacts of pollution on our National Parks could serve as a wake-up call to Americans, since so many of us enjoy our parks every year. Preserving our parks means, in part, accelerating our transition to renewable energy sources that don’t pollute – including wind, solar, and geothermal. It also means accelerating our adoption of energy efficiency in homes, offices, and business nationwide. Unfortunately, federal incentives to promote clean energy and energy efficiency are dying out and state programs that support clean energy through renewable portfolio standards are under attack. We might want to look to the National Parks themselves for inspiration in reducing pollution. For example, dozens of national parks have started to use electric vehicles (powered by solar charging stations) to serve as maintenance and utility vehicles. This allows park rangers to monitor their land without contributing to the pollution that is corrupting it.
The U.S. National Park system is one of the nation’s great treasures. It was an act of tremendous foresight to establish protected places where we can all experience nature. Now, it is up to our generation to protect these treasures for the future. We all need to act to reduce pollution, including climate emissions, before it is too late. Maybe the threat of losing places we love can create the urgency we need to transition to cleaner energy and transportation solutions.
Authors: Matt Jennings (Climate Program Fellow) and Todd Larsen (Corporate Responsibility Division Director), Green America.