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California and the West

Smog Fight Reaches High Plateau

Ecology: UC Riverside scientists are set to combat urban pollution that makes its way to far-flung areas, damaging mountains and national parks.


RIVERSIDE — Armed with $1 million in federal research money, a group of UC Riverside scientists will begin this month to tackle a curious but bedeviling problem for national monuments, parks and wilderness areas across the West: smog.

Seen as an urban problem, pockets of smog and haze also plague remote, otherwise scenic spots that are protected by the federal government, from Joshua Tree National Park and the Grand Canyon to Yosemite's stark and breathtaking Half Dome.

Starting this month, UC Riverside will work with a consortium of 12 Western states, as well as Native American and federal officials, to develop the first comprehensive model explaining how car exhaust and other pollutants find their way to the sites.

The project, centered at the university's Bourns College of Engineering Center for Environmental Research and Technology and expected to last at least two years, will address the air quality in 160 national parks, monuments and wilderness areas. Five of the areas targeted by the study are in Southern California: Joshua Tree and four official wilderness areas: San Gabriel, San Gorgonio, Cucamonga and San Jacinto.

"The national parks are national parks for a reason," said Mitch Boretz, a technical planning manager at the environmental center. "We really want to make all the effort we can to protect them."

According to Environmental Protection Agency documents, the typical visual range at monuments and national parks in the West is 62 to 93 miles--half to two-thirds what it would be without pollution. At times, visitors to the Grand Canyon, which drew 4.8 million people last year, can't see the other side.

"Sometimes there's not much of a view," said Gail Tonnesen, the Riverside center's manager of environmental modeling programs. "Instead of seeing vistas, you see haze."

Under a plan announced two years ago by then-Vice President Al Gore, the federal government demanded that the air quality around national parks be returned to pre-industrial clarity. While some parks and monuments have already taken more modest stabs at clearing the air--the National Park Services launched a transit system at Yosemite last year largely to reduce traffic--the UC Riverside project is a key component of that campaign.

The money to launch the study came from the EPA and is being administered by the Denver-based Western Regional Air Partnership, a group of 12 states and federal and tribal agencies.

Using sophisticated computers and smog data, the scientists will develop models of how polluted air finds its way to the parks and monuments.

Eventually, they will work with states and government agencies to find methods of reducing haze in particularly troublesome spots. Analysts will be able to animate computer images of smog, then manipulate them to show the likely effect of any particular smog-busting proposal.

If, for example, officials wanted to experiment with different traffic routes at Joshua Tree to reduce effects of car exhaust there, the computer models would show what the result might be. In the past, those efforts, whether through reducing automobile trips or limiting the use of campfires, have been stabs in the dark.

The project will also help determine the source of pollution at the parks. In the past, the scientists say, it has been difficult to pinpoint the share of pollution generated by local traffic--sightseers, campers, hikers--as opposed to copper-smelting operations, power plants and other industrial sources.

"These people who visit parks visit in vehicles, and in some cases bring along their portable generators," Boretz said. "When you look at the visitorship, it really adds up. They are the size of medium-sized cities. But it's not just the people roasting marshmallows by the creek."

The project will explore the effect of pollution sources--industry, cars, diesel trucks, construction equipment, dust, even exhaust from Canada and Mexico, said Rich Halvey, air quality program manager for the Western Governors Assn. in Denver.

Predictably, perhaps, the Los Angeles metropolitan area is to blame for much of the pollution. Ocean breezes force the urban area's smog through mountain passes and into the desert farther east.

One recent survey estimated that 21% of the smog at the Grand Canyon originates in Los Angeles.

"We're a part of this," said James Lents, the former executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency that oversees air quality issues for the Los Angeles area. He is now the director of the atmospheric process and modeling laboratory at UC Riverside. "Most of it is coming from outside the parks."

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