Horseshoe Park in Rocky Mountain National Park
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A view of Horseshoe Park within Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park in October.

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People and nature at nearly every national park in the U.S. are being harmed by air pollution, predominately from fossil fuels and vehicles, analysis by the National Parks Conservation Association found.

“What emerges from the stories (in the study) is that people are suffering, businesses are suffering, recreationists are suffering and parks are suffering,” said Stephanie Kodish, the nonprofit’s senior director and counsel on clean air and climate, “and the solution to that suffering is reducing the air pollutants that are causing this.”

Among the 96% of national parks that were found to be “suffering significantly” from the effects of climate change, unhealthy air and environmental degradation are Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes national parks, Florissant Fossil Beds and Dinosaur national monuments and Bent’s Old Fort.

Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison national parks and Curecanti National Recreation Area also were found to be impacted to varying degrees.

The NPCA, the nonpartisan organization founded in 1919 that lobbies on behalf of the National Park Service, published the study last week. It based its findings on air pollution data collected by the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and academics.

Highlighted in the 32-page analysis are the visible changes at Rocky Mountain National Park. Grasses are replacing vast swaths of wildflowers as excess nitrogen deposited by acid rain acidifies and harms the soil; ozone is stifling tree and crop growth; and, in turn, habitat for the park’s biodiverse animal kingdom is diminished, the study found.

Other researchers have documented the direct impacts of air pollution on park visitation. A study published in July showed that travelers avoided or cut their trips short in national parks because of pollution levels that are comparable to what’s found in major cities.

The Iowa State and Cornell universities researchers found that visitor numbers dropped almost 2 percent at parks across the country when ozone levels went up even slightly and by at least 8 percent in months with three or more days of high ozone levels compared with months with fewer days of high ozone. This analysis was based on two decades of ozone pollution data.

To blame for much of the ecosystem imbalances, as well as the hazy views, in Colorado and elsewhere are oil and gas development, coal plants and mining,

“Energy development does create jobs, but it can also be short term or cyclical. It may permanently scar the landscape and affect the viewshed,” said Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association.

The EPA characterizes the oil and gas industry as the largest industrial source of methane — a greenhouse gas that scores about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of heat-trapping — and volatile organic compounds. They contribute significantly to the formation of ozone and release carcinogens like benzene, ethylbenzene and n-hexane.

The state Department of Public Health & Environment estimated that natural gas and oil operations accounted for about 39% of methane emissions in the state in 2010.

The agency, which published its estimates in 2014 and is expected to release another greenhouse gas emissions report this year as mandated by a 2008 executive order, expects that number to increase to 46.4% in 2020 and 51.2% in 2030.

Oil and gas operations are scattered across the land surrounding Rocky Mountain National Park, with wells to the northwest in Jackson and Routt counties and about 50 miles to the east in Weld County. Wells are also in counties south of the Great Sand Dunes, south and east of Dinosaur National Monument and near Mesa Verde National Park, a map from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission shows.

The federal government has repeatedly listed thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management property near the Sand Dunes and Dinosaur for sale for oil and gas production since President Donald Trump took office, though environmental activists have been quick to challenge them.

But, 2011 data from the state’s Regional Air Quality Council also show that 70% to 80% of the pollutant recorded on high ozone days in the metro Denver and northern Front Range counties was carried to Colorado from other states. The council lists both human-caused and natural emissions as sources.

“That makes Colorado’s challenges unique and requires bold thinking and creative policy solutions that are much broader than any one industry,” said Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group. Haley noted that Colorado requires oil and gas companies to detect and repair leaks, as well as install technology that captures 95% of emissions.

With the passage of the Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations bill this year, the state is also working to develop “even more assertive strategies to reduce oil and gas emissions,” said Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Quality Control Division.

Also listed by the National Parks Conservation Association as a perpetrator of clouding the air with toxins is car exhaust. The state Health Department estimated that transportation accounted for about 32% of carbon dioxide emissions in the state in 2010. That number will increase about 1% by 2020.

Gov. Jared Polis’ first executive order issued in office might counter these numbers. The mandate aims to boost the number of electric vehicles sold in the state as well as access to charging infrastructure.

The National Parks Conservation Association also takes serious issue with the White House’s rollback of methane pollution rules specifically targeted at the oil and gas sector — which could increase emissions by more than 40% — attempts to revitalize the coal industry and limitations on peer-reviewed science from policy decisions.

Included in this is a dramatic decline in civil penalties issued to polluters by the EPA in the two years of Trump’s presidency, the Washington Post reported.

“The threats to the scientific integrity of the national parks is of grave concern to us,” Kodish said, “because at the end of the day, all of the information that flows through the Park Service and the EPA must have a scientific underpinning. That’s fundamental.”

Twitter: @lizmforster

Phone: 636-0193

Liz Forster is a general assignment reporter with a focus on environment and public safety. She is a Colorado College graduate, avid hiker and skier, and sweet potato enthusiast. Liz joined The Gazette in June 2017.

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