Budget cuts in the name of "Core Operations Analysis" have dipped into the National Park Service's Air Resources Division, forcing it to "decommission" a device long used to monitor visibility in select parks in the West.
"Transmissometers" for about two decades have been used by the Park Service to help measure visibility conditions in such parks as the Grand Canyon, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite and Canyonlands. As it's been explained to me, the devices measure "light extinction" by calculating how much light is absorbed by particles in the air as well as how much is scattered by airborne particles.
John Vimont, chief of research and monitoring for the Park Service's Air Resources Division, tells me the loss of the transmissometers won't be great, that other devices that measure airborne particulates will provide much of the same data.
Still, Vimont says the decision to decommission the transmissometers was prompted by economics, not science.
"We are living in times of limited budgets," he says. "We'd prefer not to lose them. I hate to lose any data."
Parks that will lose their transmissometers if other funding isn't found are Badlands, Glacier, Bandelier National Monument Canyonlands, Great Basin, Guadalupe Mountains, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite.
Grand Canyon, which has two of the devices, dodged the budgetary bullet because, Vimont explained to me, it has been using transmissometers since the 1980s to measure visibility and officials didn't want to derail that long-term research. Curiously, though, he told me several other parks that are losing their transmissometers had also been using the devices since the 1980s.
"A lot of intensive monitoring over the years has happened at the Grand Canyon," Vimont said. "If we were going to keep (transmissometers) anywhere, we've had good luck with running those."
Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the NPS moved in recent years to rely on particulate measurements to calculate visibility, the transmissometers, along with nephelometers (another device that monitors visibility by examining light corruption), were used, in effect, to "verify" what the particulate monitors calculated. Now that backup is being shucked off, which might not be a big concern if the particulate monitors do the job they are designed to do.
Still, with 18 applications for coal-fired power plants on hand in Texas, and others elsewhere in the country, it seems the Park Service, which well knows the state of air quality over the parks, would want all the monitoring it could muster to stay atop of changing conditions.
Vimont did tell me the Air Resources Division hopes to use the savings from decommissioned transmissometers -- a sum of a couple hundred thousand dollars a year -- for other air quality studies. "We're looking at a variety of things. Part of it will be to account for inflation," he said. "We're also looking at nitrogen deposition issues, particularly in the western U.S."
Another looming air quality concern is ammonia emissions, which Vimont says contribute to nitrogen depositions at some parks, including Rocky Mountain.
Nitrogen loading can cause numerous ecological problems, ranging from ground-level ozone to atypical plant growth. This past spring Rocky Mountain officials signed a letter with the state of Colorado to establish a "critical load" when it comes to nitrogen deposition in the park. But without adequate monitoring of ammonia, how can that load factor be monitored?
"We monitor (ammonia) in precipitation, but total amounts of ammonia getting into parks, we're not sure where that's at," Vimont says.
Also of concern are mercury depositions and even pesticides, pollutants that the Park Service doesn't have a good handle on.
"We can't monitor for everything in every park," says Vimont. "That's just a fact of life there as far as the overall budgets. It is likely that somewhere, sometime we miss something."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Mark Wenzler told me his group is concerned that the latest budget cut to the air quality program won't be the last.
"What troubles me more (than the decommissioned transmissometers) is that this could be but the first round of monitor shutdowns," says Wenzler, the NPCA's Clean Air Program director. "Certainly the federal budget situation is not getting any better (and will likely get worse,) so there will likely be pressure each budget cycle to cut back a little more until there really are decisions made that compromise the ability to protect the parks."
Indeed, at Mesa Verde National Park the cuts aren't going unnoticed.
"We did have some budget cuts last year and will likely lose more again this year," says George L. San Miguel, the park's natural resource manager. "I do not yet think it would be enough to totally jeopardize the (air quality monitoring) program, but in the long term these cuts can't be absorbed without risking the loss of our current part-time technician because the position becomes less and less attractive."