Polluted paradise

Published by Steve on

Giant trees, magnificent vistas, pristine wilderness. Well, reconsider the pristine part. The air in Sequoia-Kings Canyon is smoggier than New York City’s.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2005.

By Gary Polakovic, Times Staff Writer

Polluted Paradise: The air in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks is smoggier than New York City’s. (Brian Vander Brug / LAT)

Up here, atop Beetle Rock, a precipice more than one mile high in the Sierra, air at dawn is clear, invisible, exactly as it should be. Two mule deer bucks in velvet saunter through the forest, and a sow bear and cub scratch out bugs from a big tree near Giant Grove.

Down below, 30 miles away in the San Joaquin Valley, sunrise illuminates haze like a flashlight shot through tea. The smear of smog spreads wide over Central California, constrained only by the horizon and a tabletop-flat layer of warm air called an inversion that holds a brownish haze low to valley farms and cities and highways. For now, at least, the high country is untouched.

Yet as the sun climbs, California heats up; people awaken, start their machines and pump tons of emissions into the sky. The air pollution, stratified over Visalia like the layers of a cake, begins to cook and mix and expand. The ozone gauge at Beetle Rock starts ticking upwards from .066 part per million and will soon climb toward the unhealthful mark. The smog is coming.

With little fanfare, Sequoia-Kings Canyon has become America’s smoggiest national park. The mountains that John Muir once described as “not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it” have on many summer days the clarity of miso soup. Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree and Great Smoky Mountains national parks get plenty of bad press for their air quality, but Sequoia-Kings Canyon would be fortunate if it had similar conditions. The pollution in Sequoia is less severe than in the Los Angeles basin, but there are more smoggy days here than in Atlanta or New York City.

The main culprits are ozone and haze, air pollution’s most potent ingredients. Ozone is a toxic, colorless gas and a powerful lung irritant. It forms when hydrocarbons from solvents, petroleum and paint mix with sunlight. Most of the haze comes from dust and smoke from diesel exhaust, tilled cropland, road grit and fires.

Line in the sky: In the early hours of the morning, biological science technician Heather Dumais checks a rain gauge at a weather station in Sequoia’s Giant Forest as an inversion layer sits above the San Joaquin Valley. (Brian Vander Brug / LAT)

Over the past few years, ozone at Sequoia for an average of 56 days annually has exceeded the national clean-air benchmark established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Stated more explicitly, ozone reaches or exceeds the standard of .08 ppm eight hours a day, one day out of six during the year. It is a level that is harmful for human health, and it is anathema to the aesthetics of a national park. On clear days you can see 100 miles from Beetle Rock, but park officials say visibility on the worst summer days is less than 10 miles.

“Smog?” asks day-hiker Jay Emmer of New York on an ascent of nearby Moro Rock. “We just thought it was a natural blue haze. I told my wife we needed a filter for the camera.”

Watching the decline

AIR pollution has dogged Annie Esperanza since she was a little girl growing up in Porterville, and that was some 40 years ago. Over time she has watched San Joaquin Valley air turn ugly as homes, highways and farms spread. After earning her natural resources management degree from Humboldt State University, she came to Sequoia-Kings Canyon, where for the past 23 years she has run the park’s air pollution program.

“When you go to a national park, you think it’s clean and pristine and has good air, but it’s not. People are surprised, but people should be shocked and appalled at the air quality here. I don’t think they’re mad enough about it,” Esperanza says.

One day during the summer while hiking near Giant Forest, scouting for an air pollution monitoring site, she found herself short of breath and began coughing and trying to clear her lungs. Fluid was filling her bronchial cavities — a classic symptom of congestive heart failure. She managed to walk out, then went home. A doctor diagnosed her with a rare heart disease. Today, a pacemaker, internal defibrillator and mechanical valve inside her chest keep her on track. She still suffers shortness of breath and fatigue on smoggy days, forcing her to stay in her office at park headquarters.

At Beetle Rock: Yellow spots on pine needles show ozone damage. (Brian Vander Brug / LAT)

Smog in Sequoia has not only affected Esperanza’s life, but it has also forced the park to conduct its business differently.

Job postings at Sequoia-Kings Canyon come with a generic disclaimer (“The Central Valley and Sierra Nevada Mountains of California may pose human health problems due to air pollution”). A recent listing for a forestry technician is more blunt: ” … during summer months, air quality in Sequoia-Kings Canyon occasionally reaches unhealthy levels.”

Advisories such as these have put a crimp in hiring. “There are people who won’t come here because they are worried about the air quality problem,” Esperanza says.

Additionally, the park service has curtailed some guided tours to avoid smog, which is worst during afternoons and evenings. The park-sponsored tours to the top of Moro Rock, a hulking granite knob 6,700 feet high with a commanding view of the Kaweah River gorge and the Central Valley, are conducted before 11 a.m. to avoid exposing visitors to the unhealthy air — and the diminished views. On Independence Day, park employees used to scale Moro Rock to watch fireworks over Visalia and Fresno, but haze snuffed out the aerial displays and an annual tradition, says Bill Tweed, chief naturalist for Sequoia-Kings Canyon.

In the rugged Sequoia backcountry, ranger and emergency medical technician Nate Inouye says he treats more people with respiratory problems than he did at his previous postings in Yosemite, Lassen, Bryce Canyon and Dinosaur national parks. “We have a lot of people with complaints of difficulty breathing,” he says.

Beyond everyday complaints, however, Inouye has found some hikers sitting with arms wrapped around knees, heads slung, breathing hard. It may not be just the smog that’s responsible. “It’s mostly circumstantial evidence,” he admits, “but it points to poor air quality as a contributor.” And in some of the worst cases, hikers have been found lying on their side on a trail; some have even passed out. Fortunately he has gotten to these hikers in time with oxygen and inhalers to help them catch their wind, but not always.

A few years ago, at Grant Grove, he recalls, “we had a child, an asthmatic, 4 to 6 years old, who had a lot of difficulty breathing. The mother had helped with inhalers, but it didn’t work, so we got involved. Rangers started treating her [the child]. She was getting very anxious, very terrified that she couldn’t breathe. We had to fly that child out to the hospital.”

Last year, Laura Whitehouse, 39, of Fresno took her three children to Sequoia to research an article for the National Parks Conservation Assn. magazine. While returning to the Giant Forest Museum, her son, Aaron, who was 9 at the time, began wheezing and gasping. He suffered from asthma, but no one expected it to be triggered in the park. As he entered the museum, he fell to the floor. A ranger called paramedics, who reached doctors at University Medical Center in Fresno, who prescribed treatments to restore his breathing. Whitehouse did not take her children back to Sequoia until this past Labor Day, and she made sure she had packed medicines and a breathing-aid device called a nebulizer — along with boots, camp gear and canteens.

“It was horrible. It was hideous,” Whitehouse says. “It’s sad that I have to load up the nebulizer and all these meds just to take my kids to a national park.”

People aren’t the only park inhabitants that suffer from smog. Crouching near a scraggly Jeffrey pine that resembles Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, Esperanza grabs a bundle of needles hanging from it and bends them back to reveal their mottled undersides. When the needles open their stomata to exchange gases with the atmosphere, the pollutant enters and destroys cells, freckling the needles with a distinct yellow pattern. About 90% of the trees near Beetle Rock, the smoggiest place in the park, look scruffy, do not thrive and are vulnerable to disease. The giant sequoia trees seem largely unaffected, though their seedlings suffer.

Since the late 1980s, Esperanza says pesticides and herbicides carried by the wind from the valley increasingly show up in the park, from Ash Mountain to Giant Forest. Researchers find man-made chemicals in the fatty tissues of frogs and fish. Amphibians are in decline in much of the Sierra, and one species, the foothill yellow-legged frog, is no longer found in the park, though it occurs elsewhere in the Sierra foothills from the Tehachapis to Yosemite. Whether these declines are the result of airborne pollutants, it is hard to say.

Denying ugly truth

SOMETIMES a landscape is so enchanting, so perfect, it blots out the possibility that anything could be amiss. Sequoia, a world of superlatives, is such a place. The timber and rivers and granite peaks exist in such harmony that the mind struggles with the fact that the surrounding sky is full of contaminants. Denial is often easy when walking with Muir amid trees that may be older than the New Testament, bears lounge in shade and sunshine chases shadows over ferns.

“I think [Sequoia] is holding its own very well,” says 50-year-old Michael Simu of Romania, as he huffs his way up Moro Rock on a hazy summer afternoon. “I’ve seen parks in South Carolina with dead forests that are devastated. This is a pilgrimage place. This is sacred ground, a holy place. I know what John Muir felt. It [Sequoia] has a personality like a human being.”

Sequoia’s peculiar duality — its majesty and its tarnish — is not lost on park service personnel, who manage the park so that people come to love and cherish it while realizing at the same time that much of its environment is becoming tainted and unhealthy.

The federal Clean Air Act designates Sequoia-Kings Canyon as a “class 1 airshed,” which provides the highest level of protection for air quality and gives the park service some control over big emitters within 90 miles of the park.

But the pollution that reaches Sequoia does not come from a single factory, one coal-fired power plant or a smelter. If it did, the park service could intervene and press for cleanup. Instead, most of the smog in the Sierra comes from many sources in the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley. Sequoia’s blue skies are clouded by hundreds if not thousands of small sources, such as cattle feedlots, household chemicals, boats, paint fumes, diesel trucks, unpaved roads, pesticides, petroleum refining, manufacturers, small businesses and auto tailpipes.

The only way to cut smog, park officials believe, is to build a constituency for blue skies out of the 1.5 million annual visitors to Sequoia-Kings Canyon. So they strive to get the word out, even at the risk of telling people that paradise has warts. Eschewing lessons from Public Relations 101, the park service goes out of its way to tell people about the polluted air. Notwithstanding the dusky sky, signs and warnings about smog are evident everywhere.

In the gift shop of the Sequoia-Kings Canyon park headquarters near Three Rivers, a smog forecast sign, designed as a rainbow, greets visitors. All the park’s museums and gift shops prominently display the rainbow. One day in early July, it warned that the air is “unhealthy for sensitive people,” meaning that those who are very old or young, pregnant women, those with asthma or a heart condition, and people who are very active outdoors should curtail prolonged strenuous activity in the park.

In addition, the park service has created big, bold interpretive displays, full-color brochures, newsletter bulletins, interpretive signs on popular trails, ranger-led “What’s in the air?” campfire talks, and it plans to install an interactive computer program on pollution in the visitor center.

It is a calculated gambit. “We have very little political clout,” explains Esperanza. “We want people to know about it [smog] so anybody who can do something about it, will.”

By late afternoon, the parking lot at Moro Rock is full as people make ready for the walk to the top, a 300-foot elevation gain in 100 meters. Haze is filling the valley like dingy water filling a tub, diminishing the view.

One man from Mexico ascends the trail with his daughter. How’s the view?

“Muy bonito.”

“Perfect,” his daughter adds.

Another family from Michigan troops past, having descended from the top of the rock. They notice the haze, but they think it’s natural like what they see in forests back home. They failed to notice the smog bulletin at the top of rock.

If not everyone notices the blighted air, that’s OK, says Tweed, the park naturalist. He says the intent is not to bludgeon visitors with bad-air propaganda, but to make them appreciate how grand and vulnerable the park is.

“Some people are disgusted and worried about the air pollution. A lot of people come here and see a beautiful green place,” he says. “We want them to see both, a place that has value and is beautiful and a place that needs protection.”

Hazy days

Air pollution in Sequoia National Park has been worse than in big California cities over the past few years– but not as bad as in Los Angeles.

Smog days

(Average number of days over the past three years when ozone violated the federal government’s health-based eight-hour limit.)

San Francisco Bay Area:


San Diego:




Sequoia National Park:


Los Angeles basin:


Sources: National Park Service, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, South Coast AQMD, San Diego County Air Pollution Control District