Image credit: © NPCA

Chris Liu’s Story

His generation didn’t break the climate. But here’s why he hopes they can fix it.

Conservationist Chris Liu looks to the future – his own and for national parks in the Pacific Northwest.

An oil refinery’s complex maze of pipes and flare stacks roar on the shores of the vast Puget Sound. BP Cherry Point is Washington state’s largest refinery, emitting fumes as it processes some of the dirtiest crude oil from around the world. To the east, threatened bald eagles soar above North Cascades National Park. Down the coast, Chris Liu hikes with a friend through Olympic National Park.

Solutions: National Parks as a Catalyst for Pollution Reduction

By 2021, all states must create new plans to comply with the Clean Air Act’s Regional Haze Rule. These plans must detail how polluters will be required to reduce their emissions to clean up hazy skies in national parks and wilderness areas across the country. These emission reductions must occur by 2028, which is about when the climate scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimate we must sharply limit pollution to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Unfortunately, the EPA’s new, non-binding directives open doors for states to ignore controllable air pollution by shifting blame for air quality degradation from sources like coal plants and oil and gas development to other sources of pollution, such as wildfires and international emissions. Passing the buck to other countries to absolve U.S. polluters from accountability is unacceptable and will result in dirtier air in our national parks. EPA has also stated intentions to “streamline” the process for state haze plans, a likely signal for limiting public input. These actions could needlessly threaten park waters, wildlife and landscapes and forever change how people like Chris Liu experience these places.

In Washington state, British Petroleum’s Cherry Point refinery, already a contributor to haze at North Cascades and Olympic National Parks, is expanding and should be a focus in upcoming state’s haze plan. Likewise, in North Dakota, the newly permitted Davis refinery threatens Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s air quality. And in California’s Central Valley, industrial agriculture and many other pollution sources contribute to some of the worst air in the nation, which in turn contributes to regional haze in surrounding national parks.

Thankfully, the Clean Air Act currently remains intact, and states must comply with it, which means park pollution must be reduced. Because the sources of pollution that harm human health, park skies and the climate are often one and the same, states and stakeholders could create comprehensive plans to tackle multiple problems efficiently within the regional haze planning framework. Such plans could make coal plant retirements enforceable, establish sharp limits on oil and gas emissions, and advance other mechanisms to reduce air pollution in Class I airsheds.

NPCA will continue protecting national parks by identifying the sources of pollution harming parks and advancing policy, technical and legal solutions for mitigating these problems.

Chris is on his way up from Texas for a new job, and his friend is along for the ride. Olympic is the first place they’ve stopped since crossing the state line. Camping in the backcountry, Chris is astounded by the park’s diversity — old growth rainforests, snow-capped peaks, tide pools on the beach. Olympic seems pristine. But taking in the view from an alpine hillside, he notices haze obscuring the distance. At nearby Mount Rainier National Park, he sees signs with information on air pollution.

Chris didn’t discover his love of natural places until college. His immigrant parents had focused on working to give their children opportunities in education and jobs, not outdoor recreation. But then a college buddy invited him to a family cabin near a national park, and he realized, “You feel at peace with yourself away from the distractions of our modern lifestyles. It’s a chance to connect with friends and myself and unplug from the day to day.” He went on to complete his college degree in finance. But his passion became conservation.

Chris followed his passion across the country, serving as an ambassador for Texas State Parks, building bridges and trails at Crater Lake National Park, and now working for the National Park Service’s Cultural Landscapes program in Seattle.

On a hike with his new work team, one of his co-workers brings along her baby girl in a backpack carrier. The baby looks around at the trees, cooing and babbling. To Chris, she sounds awe-struck — a response that he can relate to. His thoughts turn to the future: “That’s definitely something I would want to foster in my family one day.”

But the shadow of climate change hangs over that hope. As the planet warms and ecosystems change, some species are already facing extinction. Scientists project that by 2030 or 2040, the glaciers in North Cascades and other parks will be gone.

Chris wishes things could stay as they are now for his own future family. “But I know the reality is, it’s not going to stay the same,” he says. “I feel bad for other species who call this place home. I feel bad for the parks. But national parks are supposed to be protected at the highest level. They’re the canary in the coal mine. Makes you wonder how bad things are outside the parks where things aren’t so well-protected.”

Less than 100 miles from Olympic and North Cascades, the BP Cherry Point refinery has received a permit to expand. Chris soon learns that the permit fails to require the best pollution control measures, which would have reduced harmful air pollution at the parks, not to mention nearby communities.

“When you have a refinery so close that it harms the air quality of the area by emitting dangerous fumes, it doesn’t seem right that we would allow that to continue, let alone get worse,” Chris says. “I don’t like that the state issued a permit to build more — and affecting my ability to enjoy the parks in the future.”

Sometimes, an older person will apologize to Chris for leaving his generation a world that’s facing such daunting climate challenges.

But Chris doesn’t like to point fingers. “We just have to move forward and try our best to find solutions,” he says, and describes the path forward: “We have to acknowledge that what the scientists are saying is real. Being engaged with our political representatives is important. Our generation has new innovative ideas. We have the drive — our kids and grandkids can’t enjoy the same kind of world if we don’t do what we have to do to fix it.”

Air & Climate Read the Polluted Parks Report