When we clean the environment, parks will benefit
Published: Thursday, June 8th, 2006
Wouldn’t it be great if we could place our national parks in hermetically sealed bubbles, keeping them separate and apart from the less-pristine world, like snow globes on a mantle? That isn’t possible, of course, given the dynamic and interconnected quality of the natural world — so let’s stop pretending it is when we discuss pollution in national parks and what might be done about it. It’s all well and good for Rocky Mountain National Park Superintendent Vaughn Baker to bemoan environmental threats facing the park, including higher-than-desirable nitrogen levels, and to call for slashing those pollutants by half or more. But Baker is a park administrator, not a regional environmental czar. And let’s not pretend there are any short-term, cost or consequence-free fixes to the problem, since these pollutants frequently have their origins well beyond park boundaries and the regulatory regime required to address them would have to be regional, perhaps even national, in scope. High nitrogen levels in the park isn’t largely the fault of park visitors, park operations or any other internal factors — it results from the fertilizers farmers use miles away, which are carried there by the wind. Likewise, the haze that sometimes hangs over Rocky Mountain and other national parks mostly originates elsewhere, sometimes in a power plant’s smokestack, or automobile’s tail pipe, many miles away. If we want to cut nitrogen levels or any other pollutants in a park swiftly and dramatically, we have to make concomitant cuts in pollution at the source — which is easier said than done because of the significant costs and trade-offs involved. In order to reduce nitrogen levels in Rocky Mountain National Park, we could, theoretically, ban fertilizer use in the South Platte Basin, which is where researchers think much of it originates. But if we could ban fertilizers without imposing costs on farmers and consumers, we would have done so long ago. Baker knows this, of course, which is why he is calling on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency to help him with the problem. However, it seems an odd case of the tail waging the dog for the superintendent of one national park to be demanding pollution limits that would have to be imposed region-wide to have the desired effect. If such pollution reductions were so easily accomplished, they would have been accomplished years ago. What Baker is proposing is really much more radical than it at first appears — it’s an attempt to pave the way for regional pollution controls, using a national park’s environmental health as justification. The nitrogen reductions Baker is proposing “would establish the nation’s first critical load of a pollutant to protect a national park environment,” notes The Rocky Mountain News. This “also would give environmentalists a figure to build political and, possibly, legal arguments around.” Arguments for what? More regulation, of course. We’re not arguing that nothing can or should be done about curbing pollution in national parks. We’re just arguing for realism and candor about what is possible, given the interconnected nature of the environment and the fact that few environmental improvements come without significant trade-offs. Pollution is no less desirable in our back yards than in national parks. But we can’t simply wave it away with a magic wand, any more than national parks can be sealed away in snow globes. If we continue to work toward cleaning up the environment as a whole — and we’ve been making progress in that regard, in spite of what the doomsayers tell us — the national parks, too, will benefit.
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