Environmental woes endanger national parks

Environmental woes endanger national parks

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Air pollution causes smog in Shenandoah National Park. Pollution is among the problems challenging America's public lands. Air pollution causes smog in Shenandoah National Park. Pollution is among the problems challenging America's public lands.

(RNN) - Air pollution and fracking are not issues many associate with the U.S. National Park system. But environmental challenges found outside the borders of the parks often find their way inside.

Analysts stated those challenges threaten the parks' environmental integrity, as well as the ability to be used and enjoyed by patrons.

Climate change

At Glacier National Park, climate change has melted the park's namesake glaciers. Conservative climate change projections by the U.S. Geological Survey suggested that if current melting rates continue, the park's glaciers may all be a memory by 2030.

Glaciers in Alaska, as well as North Cascades and Mount Rainier national parks, were also in danger of melting away.

Rising seas threatened Everglades National Park, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit watchdog group. The park's habitats were already undermined by the retreating shoreline and the incursion of seawater.

The parks' remarkable flora and fauna could disappear, either by migration or dying out. In some cases, the effects could ruin the very elements that make the locations noteworthy.

The coral and sea life at Biscayne and Dry Tortugas national parks were at risk from warmer seas, which can cause the young of sea turtles, crocodiles and other animals to develop as the same sex, the NPCA stated.

"Some scientists believe that Joshua trees could disappear from Joshua Tree National Park, and saguaro and giant sequoia are threatened in their namesake parks," the National Park Service remarked.

Snowpacks at higher elevations in mountainous parks may diminish and disappear, limiting recreational opportunities for parkgoers.

Along with the rest of the western U.S., which has experienced a severe wildfire season this summer, the region's parks run an elevated risk of wildfires with higher summer temperatures.

Air pollution

Visitors often viewed scenic vistas of Joshua Tree, Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain and Sequoia national parks through a haze of smog.

The NPCA blamed coal-fired power plants for pollution at some locations, as well as pollution produced by nearby metropolitan areas that drift in on air currents, which is the case for Joshua Tree.

The Obama Administration already has coal-fired power plants in its sights as a cause of climate change.

Mercury rising

Air pollution, however, caused more than smoggy views. In 1994, according to a NPS study, EPA researchers found high levels of mercury in the tissues of fish at Acadia National Park in Maine.

"This was something of a surprise because the park is located in a relatively pristine spot away from industrial activities," the 2011 report noted.

A multi-agency effort determined much of the mercury was brought into the park from coal-burning power plant emissions from the Midwest. Mercury, when introduced into the atmosphere, can travel a long way before returning to the earth in the form of precipitation or fog.

"The park's steep slopes, high peaks and exposure to coastal fog create an environment conducive to trapping polluted air masses," the report stated. 

It explained coniferous forests collected more mercury than deciduous forests because needles have more surface area than leaves.

The mercury washes to the ground, collects in the soil and moves into streams and lakes. It can cause "reproductive and neurological impairment and deceased survival" in animals, according to the park service's report.

Acadia wasn't the only park suffering from mercury contamination. Parks in the Great Lakes region, including Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, also showed elevated mercury levels.

When it came to reducing mercury deposition in these parks, "reducing emissions is the first step toward improving ecosystem conditions," the report commented.

Oil and gas development

The controversial natural gas extraction method called hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, has also made its presence felt in national parks.

The Marcellus Shale, a sedimentary rock formation under the Earth from central New York to southern West Virginia, has been estimated to contain 363 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. That would supply U.S. needs for more than 15 years, and similar formations were discovered throughout the country.

Companies retrieve the natural gas via fracking, which is accomplished by drilling to the shale formation and blasting the shale with a mixture of water, chemicals and other materials to fracture the shale, allowing the gas to rise to the surface.

The practice is controversial because while private landowners and government stand to make money, "others contend that the potential for contamination is unacceptably high," the National Park Service stated in a report. The National Park Service has also expressed concern about deterioration of air quality, the soundscape and the night sky in areas with fracking operations.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota has experienced fracking effects more than any other national park. Fracking rigs are visible at several places, and a well has been staked near Elkhorn Ranch, the home of Theodore Roosevelt in the late 1800s and the place that helped inspire his conservation ethic. About 45,000 wells are expected to be built at the park, affecting wildlife and the experience of park visitors, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

The Bureau of Land Management has considered setting aside up to 2.5 million acres of public land aside for oil shale and tar sands development in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, threatening the environmental integrity of eight nearby parks under the National Park Service purview.

Land use

Human activity in the past - everything from hunting to the introduction of new plants and animals to an area - have a lasting impact on an area, very often for the worse.

For example, historical mining activity in California left a legacy of contaminated runoff, damaged plant populations, degraded habitat and soil contamination in the landscapes of Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and Mojave National Preserve, according to the NPCA.

Past activities like hunting, logging, water management and the introduction of non-native species also threaten ecosystems.

For instance, more than 30 native plants have been lost at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, in part because of invasive plants. Some 600 species of non-native plants, goats, sheep, pigs, cats rats and mosquitos, brought to the island in the past 200 years, threatens native species.

In Rocky Mountain National Park, the elk population has boomed, overgrazing the plants in the park, thanks to the elimination of the gray wolf from the park. The wolf formerly kept the elk population in check.

National parks also face challenges brought on by their popularity.

Overcrowding and overuse causes city-like congestion in popular parks like Yosemite, as well as air pollution from car exhaust, erosion and waste from all the hikers, climbers and campers, a challenging situation for wildlife and a poor experience for visitors.

It's been a problem for decades. In 1980, a National Park Service report stated that "increasing automobile traffic is the single greatest threat to enjoyment of the natural and scenic qualities of Yosemite."

The population pressure has only increased over time. The National Park Traveler reported that nearly 283 million visitors traveled to the National Park System in 2012, an increase of nearly 4 million from 2011.

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