Clean Air Key to Quality Outdoor Experiences

Organizers of the Outdoor Retailer trade shows deserve a hearty "hoorah!" for their move to power the Winter Market with green energy.
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Organizers of the Outdoor Retailer trade shows deserve a hearty "hoorah!" for their move to power the Winter Market with green energy.

Green power -- or electricity from environmentally "clean" power sources -- provides an important step forward on a number of issues, not the least of which is air quality. Clean air issues are frequently addressed by organizations concerned with public health, as well they should be. Air pollutants pose some of the greatest threats to human health and well being in our society today. Folks with chronic respiratory and/or pulmonary problems can frequently trace the source of their problems -- or at least the increased size of their problems -- to the air they breathe.

Outdoor enthusiasts, however, should also be paying attention to the problems of air pollution -- human health isn't the only casualty of airborne pollutants. Air pollution threatens the very outdoor sports we all love.

Hikers with more than a few years familiarity with the mountain ranges along the eastern seaboard will surely recognize that the visibility in those areas has steadily decreased over the years. Where once hikers could routinely gaze east from the Virginia Blue Ridge and clearly see the Washington Monument punctuating the horizon, they can now count themselves lucky to be able see to the next ridgeline over.

The west hasn't escaped this problem, either. What seems to be pure, pristine mountain air often proves otherwise. The clear, clean air that surrounds you as you hike up the ridge trail suddenly is shown to be not so clear, not so clean, when you break out on top and turn to gaze out on a panoramic vista, only to find it blurred by a fine, brown haze.

No place is safe. The Olympic Peninsula of Washington is ideally located to be assured some of the cleanest air in the country. The prevailing winds off the Pacific scour the air of the peninsula, bringing fresh ocean breezes to the wild backcountry of Olympic National Park -- an area deemed so beautiful and precious that it was also made a World Heritage Site by the international community. But even here air pollution has impacted the remote parts of the backcountry. An endless stream of cargo ships plow through the Pacific and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to enter Puget Sound. These ships belch thousands of tons of pollution out of their diesel engines -- pollution that drifts on the prevailing winds straight into the pristine heart of the Olympic Peninsula.

To be sure, there are still remarkably clear days of glorious views, when hikers can stand atop the peaks on the edge of the Olympic Range and scan the eastern horizon from north to south and see Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood, and at times yet, even Mount Jefferson far down in central Oregon. But other days, the views barely reach the shores of Hood Canal at the eastern foot of the Olympic peaks.

The great "view-sheds" of the American wilderness that we all love so much are under attack. The diminishing scenic vistas, though, represent just part of the problem. It's bad enough to lose views, but the land itself is also under attack. Plants and animals are dying or being deformed as a result of airborne pollutants. We've all heard the media alerts warning people about the dangers of mercury in fish. But what's not often mentioned is the source of that mercury -- much (by some estimates, as much as 85 percent) of it comes from airborne sources. Fish in remote alpine lakes deep in protected wilderness areas have been found with levels of mercury high enough to prove toxic to humans, and to the wild birds and beasts that feed on those fish.

The list goes on. Trees and wildflowers are suffering and dying in some areas from airborne volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Amphibians around the world are being found with increasingly common, if grotesque, genetic deformities as a result of -- at least in part -- exposure to airborne toxics. Even our glaciers may be feeling an impact from air pollution. Aerosol pollutants (airborne solids) that settle out onto glacial ice create a dark film on the surface of the glacier. This dark film absorbs more heat than the radiant white ice normally would. That may be contributing to the rapid retreat of glaciers in the Lower 48.

The good news, however, is that people are beginning to take action.

There is a growing interest in more fuel-efficient vehicles. Hybrid cars -- and now even hybrid SUVs -- are flying out of auto dealerships while oversized SUVs sit unsold. People are trading in their dirty oil and wood-fired heating stoves in favor of clean-burning natural gas and propane stoves. In the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere, energy companies allow consumers to "opt-in" for green power. That is, they can specify that they want their money to support the purchase of electricity from "clean" sources. That provides the energy companies the leverage they need to actually go out and buy power from alternative sources --- as a result, wind farms are sprouting across the arid hills of eastern Washington and Oregon (a vast array of wind turbines can be seen on the ridges ringing the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, providing a stark visual contrast between the two energy extremes).

Finally, we see businesses like VNU, organizers of the Outdoor Retailer trade shows, stepping up to the plate and taking a stand. By committing to green power, they make a statement to all industries that it is possible to thrive economically while still having a clean environmental conscience.

With leadership like this, the outdoor industry will surely take its place as a leader in a coming energy revolution. And history has shown that those at the forefront of the revolution often reap the greatest rewards. Thank you, VNU, for taking a stand for our industry.

Dan A. Nelson serves as the director of communications for the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency (www.orcaa.org), a local government agency charged with enforcing local, state and federal clean air regulations within the six counties of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. He is the author of seven books published by The Mountaineers books and is a freelance journalist, writing for The Seattle Times Outdoors, Backpacker magazine and Hooked on the Outdoors magazine.

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