Most National Parks Have 'Significant Air Pollution Problems,' New Report Finds

The Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is among the most polluted.
The Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is among the most polluted.
Photo: Getty

With summertime around the corner, many of us will be preparing for our family trips to our nation’s beloved national parks. You may wanna pack your face mask, though, because a new report shows just how widespread air pollution is in these seemingly pristine environments.


The National Parks Conservation Association released a report this week on air quality within the nation’s 417 national parks. Per the report, nearly all of our parks are troubled with “significant air pollution problems” that at times can affect health, visibility, or nature. Eighty-five percent see air “that is unhealthy to breathe at times.” The most concerning include the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and Sequoia National Park in California.

The association conducted its analysis by looking at official National Park Service data, as well as three studies that examine climate change’s impacts on our parks. The report points to power plants—including coal—and vehicles as major culprits. It also point to the Trump administration at large and its attempt to roll back regulations on polluters specifically. Greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, spiked in 2018 under Trump—and pollution always accompanies their release.

The findings are particularly concerning for children, elders, and any other vulnerable visitors. (Asthma disproportionately afflicts Latinx and black communities, for instance.) But air pollution isn’t only bad for human health. When the pollution lands on soil or water bodies, wildlife and flora could be negatively impacted, especially if the environment becomes contaminated. For instance, Rocky Mountain National Park is slowly losing its flowering plants to grasses that grow from the nitrogen being deposited onto the soil from pollution in rain. That’s bad news for the ecosystem at large, particularly for animals that depend on these flowers.

Then, of course, there are the views. Look, I’m not a big national park visitor, but the views are the main draw, right? Unfortunately, air pollution is fogging up the skies, and no park in the Lower 48 was free of this impact between 2012 and 2016. The association reports that, on average, visitors miss some 50 miles of scenery to this haze. In addition to factories and cars wildfires play a role here sometimes, as we saw with Yosemite National Park last year as Ferguson Fire raged through.

This report, like others before it, also flagged climate change as a serious threat to our parks. Every single park the association examined sees some level of concern as a result of the man-made crisis, but in 326 parks climate change is a ‘significant concern’. Climate change will bring increased drought, wildfires, flooding, and invasive species.

The news doesn’t really come as a surprise. A study last year showed that national parks often see air quality similar to some of our largest cities.  The association’s proposed solution? Get your shit together, Trump, and start implementing environmental policies that prioritize the health of our people and lands.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


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You can go straight to the National Parks Service website (your tax dollars put to good use). NPS does the actual monitoring of land, water and air quality and is responsible for quality control (QA/QC) of the data collection and reporting. 

Here’s the air quality reporting by NPS directly:

Air Quality in Parks

Here’s the parks being monitored and present conditions for ozone as an example: