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Some of the most polluted national parks are in the Mountain West, report finds

Wildfire smoke hangs above a mountainous landscape. The sky is hazy with a warm tint.
Kent Kanouse
Flickr Creative Commons
Smoke from Colorado wildfires hangs in the air at Rocky Mountain National Park, which is one of the most polluted parks in the U.S.

A new report shows air pollution is affecting most national parks across the U.S., including parts of the Mountain West.

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, 97% of national parks face the threat of air pollution, raising the risk of respiratory illnesses and asthma attacks for visitors and staff.

Among the worst are fifth-ranked Carlsbad Caverns and 10th-ranked White Sands national parks in New Mexico, and ninth-ranked Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Five of the most polluted parks are in California – Sequoia and Kings Canyon had the worst air quality of them all.

All told, only a dozen of the nearly 400 national parks analyzed have “low concern” levels of air pollution, says report co-author Natalie Levine, interim campaigns director for the clean air program at the association.

“Some may think that you travel to a national park – especially our wonderful, natural, large parks in the West – that you're going to experience a crystal clear, beautiful blue sky every day you go,” Levine said. “And it's just not the truth.”

Levine said a major cause is climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions pumped into the air by vehicles, industrial facilities, farming operations and fossil fuel developers.

The report also found most national parks’ ecosystems are challenged by the effects of climate change. What’s more, nearly 60% of the parks face high-risk climate threats, such as wildfires, droughts, and invasive species.

In the Mountain West, two parks face all three of those threats: Nez Perce Historic National Park in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, and Bighorn Canyon National Recreational Area in Wyoming and Montana.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.

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