America’s parks deserve cleaner air

The National Park Service will celebrate 100 years of service this summer and record numbers of visitors are expected to visit national parks this year, surpassing last year’s record of 305 million. When visitors come to experience “Americas Best Idea,” they expect to be greeted by pristine areas, clear views and clean air.

Unfortunately, these expectations may not be met. Many national parks have poor air quality. Some parks are affected by pollution for over a month each year. Poor air quality can mean that visitors are prone to breathing polluted air, which can cause a variety of health problems.

Highly respected medical societies advocate the improvement of air quality nationwide. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for a lower standard of ozone to decrease the risk of asthma and promote healthy lung function. Furthermore, the American Heart Association has found that exposure to harmful small particulate matter air pollution can be detrimental. Better air quality equals better health for people of all ages.

When we visit the Georgia wilderness areas like Cohutta, Okefenokee, or Wolf Island, or head to the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, or the Grand Canyon National Parks, we should be able to take a deep breath without putting our health at risk. Reduced visibility from haze pollution also prevents visitors from having the full experience of visiting a park. Air pollution can also produce acid rain, which harms plants and wildlife.

The EPA’s Regional Haze Rule provides some of the strongest protections of air quality in our national parks and wilderness areas. But in order to protect national park visitors and employees from poor air quality, the rule needs to be strengthened. In response, the EPA has proposed revisions to this rule to decrease air pollution and put us on a path toward clean air in our parks.

Since air pollution crosses state lines, the proposed change clarifies every states responsibility to improve air quality in the parks and wilderness areas affected by its pollution sources. States will also be required to conduct more robust technical analyses to support their haze plans.

But the proposed revisions have limitations that need to be strengthened. If these limitations aren’t addressed, it could allow states to not take action on a source of pollution, identified by a park superintendent or other federal land manager, for up to ten years. This would weaken the ability of the EPA or the public to force remedial action if states fail to meet their required pollution reduction obligations.

Our national parks are among our country’s greatest achievements, and as we look toward their next 100 years, we need to ensure our children and the generations of visitors that will follow can have the healthy experience in our national parks they deserve.

By adopting the proposed changes that strengthen the Regional Haze Rule and rejecting those that would weaken it, we can leave a legacy of cleaner, healthier air for America’s national parks, and for all the deep breaths taken within them. To comment on the regional haze rule and protect our parks go to before August 10.

David S. Eisner, M.D., is Interim Director of the Premedical Studies Program at the University of Georgia, and serves on the Southeastern Regional Council of the National Parks Conservation Association.

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