Great Basin National Park Is Facing Threats to its Clear Air and Water Resources

Bristlecone pines are just one of the unique resources at Great Basin National Park that could be impacted by activities beyond the park's borders.

Not even its remote location in eastern Nevada can protect Great Basin National Park from the pressures, demands, and impacts of urban areas. Proposed power plants threaten its air, and growing Las Vegas could impact the park's water resources. Those are the two primary concerns the National Parks Conservation Association highlights in its Center for State of the Parks report on Great Basin.

Fortunately, the current condition of Great Basin is pretty good. It has the cleanest air of any park in the Lower 48, the night skies are incredible, and it's certainly not overrun with visitors, thanks to its location three hours from Salt Lake City and roughly five hours from Las Vegas.

But that's not to say things couldn't change fairly quickly. According to NPCA, "the 77,000-acre park currently has four coal-fired power plants operating within 190 miles of its boundary. The park’s Class II designation means that more pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and fine particles from additional planned coal-fired power plants could be impacting the park. These pollutants reduce daytime and nighttime visibility, and would contaminate the park’s lakes and streams."

Now, not too long ago there were plans to build a 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant just 38 miles northwest of Great Basin. Those plans have been withdrawn, but they could resurface, according to the NPCA.

Concerning the park's groundwater resources, NPCA officials say applications for groundwater extraction could threaten several water basins in the park, with springs and streams flowing through underground caves being of particular concern.

"The state of Nevada will determine later this year if additional groundwater rights from this region will be granted for development in southern Nevada, which would draw more water from the park’s aquifer and impact park wildlife," says the NPCA.

In assessing the state of Great Basin, staff from the Center for State of the Parks also examined the park's cultural resources -- rock art, tree carvings left behind by 19th-century sheepherders, and historic structures. While those resources were determined to be in "fair" condition, the report notes that the park currently lacks the funds and the staff to adequately survey and document these resources.

Carvings on aspen trees by Basque, Peruvian, and Scandinavian sheepherders are visible in parts of the park. Documenting these dendroglyphs is critical because some of the aspen trees are reaching the end of their life cycle, and others are susceptible to fire. The park is working to document the dendroglyphs and has proposed a three-year study of the park's aspen stands, scheduled for funding in 2010.

As with many parks across the system, Great Basin lacks some of the staff you would think it would have. For instance, while Lehman Cave is a main attraction at Great Basin, there is no cave management specialist on board, according to the NPCA, no hydrologist, and the cultural resources division counts two employees -- a cultural resource manager and a term archaeologist. Also lacking are interpretive staff for campfire talks and visitor outreach in general, according to the report.

On the positive side, the park has been able to return native Bonneville cutthroat trout to five of the six streams they inhabited before non-native species wiped them out. Sagebrush restoration work on Lehman Flat has been successful, and reclamation work on 171 acres that had been impacted by various mining activities has been completed. Additionally, cattle grazing permits were retired in the park in 1999, and domestic sheep grazing permits will be discontinued this year, which will benefit the desert bighorn population.

“Great Basin National Park is a unique and special place, with wide vistas and sense of remoteness,” says Lynn Davis, the NPCA's Nevada program manager. “We are encouraged that the natural resources of this beautiful place are in good condition overall, and expect the park’s resources to continue to be protected for our children and grandchildren.”

You can find a pdf of the complete 40-page assessment of Great Basin by surfing over to this page.