Image credit: © Mark Rose

Gema Perez's Story

She fought for her neighborhood park. That was just the beginning.

Community activist Gema Perez experiences air quality challenges in California’s San Joaquin Valley and nearby national parks.

In a modest neighborhood on the outskirts of Bakersfield, California, the driving rhythm of a Zumba class pulses through the air of Stiern Park. Gema Perez fought hard to clean up this park near her home. She loves her community parks and nearby national parks, too. Stiern Park used to host gangs, drugs and trash. Now kids play on the new playground while Gema leads their moms through workouts. They’re all breathing heavily.

Solutions: Holding government responsible and the oil and gas industry accountable for its pollution

The Trump administration has grossly limited public process and environmental review of new oil and gas leases while fast-tracking development proposals, including one from the Bureau of Land Management in California that would open 1.6 million new acres to drilling. The proposed plan could lead to the development of fracking sites near Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, César E. Chávez National Monument, and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, further degrading air quality in Gema’s community. The administration has likewise offered a record number of leases to develop oil and gas, already 50 percent more in its first two years than the Obama administration did in eight years. Many leases are across Western public lands, including in the Uintah Basin, an area that includes Dinosaur National Monument and already exceeds national ozone standards.

From Alaska to Virginia, new pipelines and related development fuel our national dependence on oil and gas. The proposed Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas line would carry and process gas from the North Slope to southcentral Alaska, releasing emissions that may threaten air quality in Denali, Gates of the Arctic and Lake Clark National Parks. The highly contentious and controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline poses direct threats to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail.

Oil and gas production emits methane, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants that harm our air and exacerbate climate change. The administration’s rollback of methane pollution rules would increase emissions by more than 40 percent. Even Royal Dutch Shell is calling on the administration to tighten rules and regulate existing and future methane pollution. Fortunately, states including Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California and New Mexico have initiatives to reduce pollution from the oil and gas sector.

NPCA is taking a stand in these matters to hold government and polluters accountable by engaging in public rulemakings and state policy initiatives, empowering communities to speak up against harmful policies, using stories and imagery to explain the risks to parks, and filing legal action to uphold the law.

On a clear day, Gema can see across the San Joaquin Valley—the Sierra Nevada to the east, the California Coast Ranges to the west. But most days, all she sees is haze. “Two or three times a month there are people who can’t join us for Zumba because of the air,” Gema says.

On a clear day, when Gema and her family visit nearby national parks like Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite, she can see the valley’s vast dairies, like the one where her husband works. She can see thousands of acres of almonds and tangerines, as well as oil fields and refineries, truck-filled distribution hubs and heavy streams of traffic on Interstate 5 and Highway 99.

There aren’t a lot of clear days.

The bowl of the San Joaquin Valley contains some of the worst air pollution in the nation. It blankets Bakersfield and César E. Chávez National Monument. It rises into the deceptively green national parks that overlook the Valley, obscuring scenic views and rolling over the mountains into Joshua Tree National Park a couple hundred miles away. Most visitors to Sequoia and Kings Canyon are missing upward of 90 miles from the views they should be able to enjoy.

Still, Gema’s family loves to escape to national parks several times a year to play, picnic, hike and camp. “The parks,” she says, “are a place to be free, to breathe clean air. We believe the air is clean because there are so many trees there, so far from the cities. I think a lot of us are wrong in that.”

Among cities, Los Angeles has the nation’s worst ozone pollution. At times, ozone pollution is even worse in Sequoia National Park, 200 miles north of Los Angeles. In between lies Bakersfield.

Gema and her family moved to Bakersfield nearly two decades ago. Her community is tightly knit. But it is nonetheless a disadvantaged place where industries push into neighborhoods. Dangers come in many forms. One of Gema’s daughters survived an attempted kidnapping. Her other daughter developed asthma. Agricultural workers like her husband frequently come home from work with red and watering eyes.

“Decision-makers pay less attention to our areas,” Gema notes. “We go to areas that are more affluent and white and we see the differences. The decisionmakers, they are not interested—or are not aware— of the conditions in disadvantaged communities.”

Alongside other mothers, she began organizing to make her community safer and healthier and eventually formed the Greenfield Walking Group. “We needed to be physically active and have a safe place where we could come together,” Gema explains. Today her group is a vital partner in improving community health. According to Gema, that includes the air: “Sometimes the open air hurts our throats. It’s something that we’ve learned to deal with, but we know it’s affecting us.”

Gema has met with her elected representatives and testified before the California Air Resources Board, asking for better regulations. “They were listening,” she says. “But I have not seen any changes, especially in the oil industry.”

So the Greenfield Walking Group continues to partner with like-minded organizations, encouraging people from other communities to speak up, too. Gema says, “That way they can see we are all experiencing problems with air pollution—from our communities to our national parks.”

Air & Climate Read the Polluted Parks Report