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.
FOR THE RECORD:
Park smog —A map with an article in last week's section about smog in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks transposed the names of the parks. Sequoia National Park is south of Kings Canyon National Park.
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.
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.
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.