Dangerous smog chokes national parks

Imagine cruising through rural California on your way to your family’s favorite vacation spot in Joshua Tree or Sequoia National Park. After hours of driving you stretch, lace up your hiking shoes and then see a sign declaring it unsafe to hike on that particular day.

Wildfires? A mountain lion? Has some species of endangered animal decided to nest at the trailhead?

No, no and not even close.

Smog is so bad in some of California’s national parks that visitor centers must caution would-be hikers when they are at a serious health risk if they choose to exert themselves even as high as 6,200 feet – much higher than many people would expect smog to exist.

“Ozone levels here are comparable to urban setting such as L.A.” said Emily Schrepf from the nonprofit advocacy group the National Park Conservation Association. “It’s just not right.”

What were once breathtaking panoramic views of mountains and greenery could now leave you coughing and struggling to see through haze. And the issue isn’t just in California.

National Parks in North Carolina, Texas and Colorado also tested “unhealthy for sensitive groups” but our own Joshua Tree and Sequoia National Parks tested “unhealthy for everyone” in 2011.

The smog is endangering ponderosa pines and giant Sequoia redwoods. Giant Sequoia redwoods are the largest and oldest known living organisms on earth and Sequoia National Park has the highest level of air pollution of any National Park in the United States.

Annie Esperanza, a park scientist who has studied air quality for more than 30 years made a point by asking:

“if this is happening in a national park that isn’t even close to an urban area, what do you think is happening in your backyard?”