Regional haze is threatening the scenic beauty the Centennial State is famous for.
There are a lot of things to love about Jason Hatfield’s photography. The textures. The color saturation. The composition. But in landscape photography, the real magic is often in capturing a spectacular scene at the right time with a wide depth of field—that is, having everything perfectly in focus. Hatfield’s 2013 “Wilkerson Pass Sunset,” a shot of yellow aspens in South Park, and his 2019 “Stony Storm Break,” an image of Colorado blue columbines set against the craggy San Juan Mountains, are exquisite examples. In both pictures, the viewer can see all the way to a crisp, clear horizon.
Hatfield, who resides in Montrose when he’s not traversing the West chasing the golden hour, grew up in Ohio, a place where he estimates he could peer only about three miles before something—a building, a forest—obstructed his sightline. Family road trips to Colorado, where he could take in views that unfurled for dozens of miles, were a revelation.
In 2008, the photographer and his wife moved from Ohio to the Centennial State, where depressing the shutter on the blown-open vistas that had so entranced him as a child became his full-time job. In recent years, though, Hatfield says one thing has made him question the long-term viability of his craft: hazy skies.
Smog and wildfire smoke have been so dense and omnipresent during the past few summers, in particular, that Hatfield hasn’t even bothered trying to shoot on many days. The 37-year-old lensman says he now spends almost as much time on his various meteorology apps, trying to predict where and when he’ll find the clearest conditions, as he does actually photographing. While Hatfield led a landscape photography workshop last summer, he says predawn smoke followed his attendees as they drove up Red Mountain Pass from Ouray like “fog flowing up a valley.” Hatfield switched to teaching the students how to nail close-up shots of wildflowers and waterfalls, but he knows that’s not what they were there for. “A lot of people come to Colorado for those grand scenes,” he says. “Haze turns them into gray, bland nothingness.”
That murky gloom obscuring the state’s postcard-worthy views is called regional haze. An atmospheric phenomenon in which pollution particulates scatter sunlight and reduce visibility, regional haze is a threat to Hatfield—and everyone else whose livelihood depends upon Colorado’s scenic grandeur. Consider the outdoor recreation industry, which accounted for $9.6 billion of Colorado’s gross domestic product in 2020. The Centennial State’s tourism juggernaut supports 150,000 jobs and expends considerable effort selling visitors on opportunities to play outside.
According to a 2020 report commissioned by the Colorado Tourism Office (CTO), 14 percent of overnight visitors to the state said the main purpose of their trip was to spend time outdoors. In 2019 (before pandemic-related interruptions), the tourism industry racked up $20.6 billion from nearly 87 million domestic and international travelers here to see, as a recent CTO marketing campaign suggests, the state’s “most spectacular vistas.”
Losing sight of beautiful scenery disrupts more than Coloradans’ livelihoods, though; it also affects the way they feel about where they live. For those who dwell along the Front Range, panoramas of the Rocky Mountains deliver a daily reminder that adventure is but a short drive away. That is, when they’re visible. “The few times I visited the Denver area this past summer, you couldn’t see the mountains,” Hatfield says.
In fact, data from the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) show that visual air quality in the Denver metro area was rated “poor” on 41 days and “extremely poor” on 18 days in 2021. That means the foothills and the summits beyond were either partially or completely obscured—by pollutants from vehicle emissions, power plants, oil and gas operations, agriculture, manufacturing facilities, and, increasingly, wildfire smoke—looking west from Denver.
The haze enveloping the Front Range may have been exceedingly bad last year, but it’s not a new problem. For more than three decades, a diverse coalition of air pollution researchers, state and federal regulators all the way up to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), land managers, environmentalists, energy companies, and others have been working to remedy regional haze, particularly in sensitive areas. But as the state’s growing population spurs greater energy production and wildfires wreak havoc on the West, protecting the vistas that are so vital to Colorado is getting far more difficult.
Every Tuesday, Robert Brantlinger treks from the U.S. Forest Service office in Durango deep into the San Juan National Forest. The 59-year-old Forest Service resource information specialist will drive 155 miles and make three stops before the day is done. First, he’ll wind his way up the Million Dollar Highway to a spot on 10,970-foot Molas Pass. Then, Brantlinger will steer his Jeep to a patch of aspens near Engineer Mountain. Finally, he’ll drive up a logging road to a site close to the retired Shamrock Mine. Even when the weather cooperates, completing the itinerary takes the entire day. “All the sites are semi-remote,” Brantlinger says, “and require snowshoeing in the winter.”
At each location, Brantlinger checks a different air monitoring system. They all collect slightly different data for disparate research organizations, and Brantlinger sends the results to the appropriate labs each week. The machine at the final stop scans for noxious gases. At Molas Pass, the system records statistics on mercury deposition, acids, and ammonia, among other things. The Engineer Mountain station pans for airborne particulates.
The setup at Engineer Mountain looks a bit slapdash, with four metal boxes sitting on a wooden structure built by scientists in 1988. The station is part of the federally funded Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments (IMPROVE) program, a nationwide network of air monitors and researchers who measure and analyze the particulates impairing visibility in 156 protected stretches of wilderness, called Class 1 Areas. Congress gave this special label to all national parks larger than 6,000 acres and all designated wilderness areas larger than 5,000 acres in 1977. There are 12 in Colorado: four national parks and eight wilderness areas that cover some two million acres combined, about three percent of the state.
Every three days, each of the four Engineer Mountain boxes sucks air through a filter, which captures any particulate matter lingering in the atmosphere. Brantlinger collects those filters and ships them off to a lab in California, where scientists analyze the particulates’ chemical compositions, as well as that of all the other Class 1 Areas’ filters, some 80,000 each year. That raw data then goes to researchers such as Scott Copeland at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, housed within Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Copeland is just one IMPROVE scientist who scrutinizes numbers from across the nation. “Mining the data from those air filters tells us quite a bit about what was going on with the air quality that day,” he says.
Particulates come in several sizes, but IMPROVE focuses on two: PM2.5, a mere speck at 2.5 microns long (one-twentieth the width of a single strand of human hair), and PM10, which measures 10 microns. Those labels simply describe the size of each particulate; what researchers really want to know is their makeup. The filters collect ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate, inorganic particulates emitted by vehicles, coal combustion, cement manufacturers, and many other industries that keep humanity running. Soil, sea salt, and elemental carbon particulates (one of the byproducts of burning coal) also end up in the filters. Then there are the particulates called organic mass, which can be thought of as natural debris, like soot from a wildfire.
These particulates are tiny, but their impact on visibility is not. As they hang in the air, they absorb and refract light before it reaches the human eye. The resulting light extinction—how much a ray of light is scattered or absorbed as it passes through a medium; in this case, the atmosphere—prevents the brain from perceiving sharp details and vibrant colors.
It also shortens the distance a person can see. Without air pollution, and with a good vantage point, one could likely see as far as 145 miles in the West. (The maximum is closer to 90 miles in the East, largely because humidity scatters light, too.) Since the American Industrial Revolution began adding pollution to the atmosphere in the mid-1800s, however, that distance in the West has shrunk to 90 miles on good days and 35 miles on bad days, depending on where weather patterns push pollutants.
IMPROVE is integral in the battle to ensure those bad days decrease and the good days get even better. The team does all this gathering and submitting because if the goal is to clear up regional haze, researchers have to know where it’s coming from. If Brantlinger sends in a sample heavy with ammonium sulfates, scientists can suspect that the haze near the San Juan National Forest on the day it was collected should be blamed on human activity. If organic mass sullies the filter, it’s a safe bet that there was a fire close by or that weather patterns carried smoke from flames farther west.
To be clear, there isn’t just a desire in the United States to clear up regional haze. Under the Clean Air Act (CAA), doing so is legally required. From the Industrial Revolution on, power plants and factories have been generating the energy and materials that allow the United States to innovate and grow. They have also spewed pollution into the air, often covering cities and towns in a thick smog.
Pollutants weren’t confined to urban corridors, though. They spread into wild areas across the nation, including in Colorado. During the mid-1980s, Elk Ridge, a distinctive mountainous outcropping north of Boulder, was not visible from Rocky Mountain National Park on certain days, despite being only 15 miles away—well within normal viewing distance. Photos of what is now Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from the same period show the sheer rock walls lurking behind an unnatural mist. Although the makeup of particulate pollution was not measured at the time at Black Canyon—IMPROVE didn’t begin taking measurements until 1985—environmentalists suspected coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region were at fault.
Calls for reform encouraged Congress to pass the CAA, which was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970. The sweeping piece of bipartisan legislation gave federal and state governments the ability to regulate air pollution that had an impact on both wild and urban areas. Then, in 1977, Congress added an amendment to the CAA calling for the specific reduction of human-caused visual impairments in Class 1 Areas. More than two decades later, in 1999, the EPA passed the Regional Haze Rule, which called for all Class 1 Areas to be returned to natural visibility conditions by 2064.
In other words, if Hatfield is still taking photos in the San Juans in 42 years, the law says he should be able to see as far and as clearly as he would have before the Industrial Revolution.
In recent decades, human-caused emissions that lead to poor visibility in Class 1 Areas have, in general, decreased across the United States. Total light extinction declined by 15 percent between 2002 and 2018, and extinction due to ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate (the two types of particulates related most closely to human activity) decreased by 61 percent and 49 percent, respectively, in the same window of time.
A big reason for that success is the nationwide move away from coal, says Lisa Devore, a National Park Service (NPS) regional air quality specialist who studies pollution in Class 1 Areas in the Intermountain West. The shift is happening in Colorado, where natural gas, solar power, and wind energy have increased and where several coal plants have already shuttered. (Nucla Station in Montrose County went offline in 2019; others, such as Xcel’s coal-fired plant in Pueblo, have announced plans to cease operations within the decade.) Regulations put in place under the Regional Haze Rule also required certain manufacturing companies to retrofit their facilities with emissions-fighting technologies. Those adjustments, along with advances in vehicle technology that have made cars cleaner, have given visibility in the Centennial State a boost.
Rocky Mountain National Park, a Class 1 Area, offers proof that the changes have been effective in Colorado. IMPROVE measurements taken on the clearest days show visibility has improved by roughly 60 percent since 1992. “It’d be impossible for these clearest days to be getting clearer if the general conditions weren’t getting cleaner,” says IMPROVE’s Copeland. But when looking at only the haziest days, the improvement hasn’t been as dramatic, at only 15 percent. Plus, on the haziest days in 2020, measurements of the visibility conditions were the worst they’ve been since 1991, when IMPROVE began monitoring the park.
That’s not welcome news for Rocky, especially because, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the most-visited national park in the state is also the fourth most haze-affected park in the country. Not every day delivers impenetrable murk, but when the miasma appears, the bluebird skies go gray and the expansive views grow, well, less expansive. “We have a number of webcams in the park that are very popular,” says Koren Nydick, the resource stewardship manager at Rocky. “When [people] notice that the visibility is poor, or the bright blue skies are less [blue] than they’re used to, we hear from folks wondering what’s going on.”
In 2020, what was going on was wildfires. That year was the worst on record for such blazes in state history, and the situation forced staff at Rocky to push out 16 smoke advisories on its social media platforms to warn potential visitors about poor air quality. In 2021, Rocky shared four smoke advisories. Those messages don’t usually mean Rocky is closed; the point is to give individuals, especially those with pre-existing health conditions, a heads-up that the air quality could worsen. The posts also, of course, helped hint to parkgoers that Dream Lake might not be quite so dreamy.
Although smoke is increasingly to blame for visibility problems in Rocky, in other Class 1 Areas and across the state in general, fire isn’t the only burgeoning culprit. Emissions from Colorado’s oil and gas industry, which has grown dramatically in recent years, further complicate the issue. The state went from extracting 33 million barrels of oil in 2010 to 192 million barrels in 2019—representing roughly 60 percent of the state’s energy production—before the pandemic caused a slump. Oil and gas operations may not seem like a huge deal for visibility; after all, they spit out far fewer particulates into the air than coal plants. They do, however, emit air pollutants, including nitric oxide, says Jeffrey Collett Jr., head of CSU’s Collett Research Group, which measures and analyzes how the oil and gas industry impacts air pollution. Nitrogen oxides themselves usually can’t be seen, but when they react with other gases in the air—especially ammonia—they drop the invisibility cloak.
It takes a few hours for these light-bending gases to form in the atmosphere, Collett says, so visibility impacts are typically seen on a regional level, rather than close to the source of the nitrogen oxide. But once they form, they hang in the atmosphere for close to a week and travel hundreds of miles. The Front Range is an area particularly conducive to these reactions: Collett’s research has traced the reactions between nitrogen oxide coming from both vehicles and oil and gas operations with ammonia from animal feedlots in the area. The resulting agents of visual obstruction were then sucked into the mountains by upslope weather events—some of them right into Rocky Mountain National Park. This phenomenon is more likely to occur in the summer, when the air is warm and prone to rising. In the winter, the cold air holds that smog closer to Denver.
Despite these causal links, Colorado regulators and researchers have struggled to pin down exactly how much the oil and gas industry might contribute to future haze due to changing markets and demand, making it difficult to set emissions limits for the industry. Still, models put together by state experts aren’t optimistic. They project emission drops from other polluters in the coming decade but also predict that sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from oil and gas operations will swell by nine percent and eight percent, respectively. Overall PM2.5 emissions are expected to increase by 30 percent, although recent rulemakings designed to reduce emissions from Colorado’s oil and gas industry could lower these figures.
All these challenges mean Colorado’s march toward natural visibility has slowed. And there’s more distressing news. “There still needs to be more research on this,” Devore says, “but we think that vehicle emissions and population growth are starting to take over those reductions that we saw from [the cleaning up and closing of] power plants.” In short: Colorado may be making its energy more cleanly and driving more eco-friendly cars, but the increased energy needs and the uptick in vehicles—about 600,000 more since 1992—stemming from the influx of new residents mean the solutions that had once seen success may no longer be enough.
The first person to give a statement in front of Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) on November 17, 2021, was Bonnie Sellers, a member of Federal Heights’ City Council. She, like many of those who talked before and after her, wanted the nine air quality experts, appointed by Governor Jared Polis to oversee the state’s air quality program, to know that regular Coloradans weren’t naive about the brown cloud. She wanted them to know that they needed to do more. “I have two small grandchildren who live and breathe here in Colorado,” she said. “We need to leave our planet a better place for them.”
Sellers’ comments came as part of the Centennial State’s regional haze rulemaking procedure. The EPA mandates that this process, in which each state updates its implementation plan for reducing visibility-impairing pollutants to natural conditions under the Regional Haze Rule, must occur every 10 years.
That continually evolving strategy is currently laid out in a 217-page document called “Colorado Visibility and Regional Haze State Implementation Plan for the Twelve Mandatory Class I Federal Areas in Colorado.” Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division (APCD), a regulatory agency established in 1971 that falls under the umbrella of the CDPHE, is in charge of doing the research for and writing that blueprint.
The AQCC’s primary job is to analyze the APCD’s draft—including taking comments from community members, activists, and representatives from a couple of dozen companies, as it did in November—and to decide whether to ask for revisions or rubber-stamp it. Once the draft is OK’d, the implementation plan moves to Colorado’s state Legislature for approval, then on to the EPA, whose staff will ensure the plan complies with the Regional Haze Rule.
It’s a long, arduous process—and the APCD is behind schedule. The updated implementation plan document should’ve been sent to the EPA by July 31, 2021. At press time in April, that had yet to happen. (The APCD did not grant 5280’s request for an interview, but a spokesperson said via email that “improving air quality and visibility at our national parks is a significant priority for us—these are treasures that help define Colorado, and we’re proud that our State Implementation Plan puts us ahead of schedule for reaching federal visibility goals in Colorado.”)
That the deadline to the EPA came and went is not a big surprise to Michael Hiatt, a senior attorney with Earthjustice. He listened in on the majority of the three days of public comments in November; plus, he took part in the hours and hours of testimony and, yes, arguing, that have occurred in front of APCD officials since rulemaking began in June 2019. The 44-year-old, who left a career in the music industry to pursue public interest environmental law and is now employed by the nonprofit known for filing lawsuits on behalf of planet Earth, knows he signed up for this sort of thing. But even Hiatt admits the regional haze rulemaking process is difficult. “The hearings are pretty involved,” he says, “and you have all these groups with very different agendas trying to win over the APCD. The idea is to find compromise, but that isn’t easy.”
December 2021. The most newsworthy related to Suncor, the state’s only oil refinery. Located in Commerce City, it has long been criticized for being careless with pollutants that have an impact on the health of the majority Latino community surrounding it. Suncor is also the ninth-largest producer of haze-causing pollutants in the state. After some back-and-forth between refinery officials and the clients Hiatt represents (Sierra Club and the NPCA), the APCD decided Suncor would have to install technology that reduces the emissions on the refinery’s biggest smokestack earlier than planned: The original deadline was 2029; now it’s 2024.
Shaina Oliver, a representative of national advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force, lives just a few miles from the Suncor oil refinery. She’s pleased Suncor will have to install emissions-reducing technology sooner rather than later, but believes the APCD didn’t go far enough. In her mind, the earlier deadline still means two more years of living with the contamination the refinery releases. The people in her community experience higher rates of asthma and heart issues than the average Coloradan, which many attribute, in part, to Suncor’s pollution. “Regional haze is not just a visual problem for communities—it’s a health problem,” Oliver says. She’s right: PM2.5 particulates will cause light extinction if and when they reach Rocky Mountain National Park, but on their way, they could also damage the lungs of the humans breathing them in, according to the EPA.
The NPS’ Devore understands these issues are complicated. She knows we’re all dependent on oil and gas, as well as on products such as cement, the production of which generates four percent of the state’s haze-causing pollutants. But she also recognizes we’ll have to start making serious headway if we have any hope of meeting the natural visibility target date of 2064. One such effort might have been a proposal from Earthjustice and the Sierra Club to cut emissions at several concrete plants in southwestern Colorado—a recommendation the APCD didn’t include in the state implementation plan.
Also not included in the state plan is how the APCD intends to address the growing threat of wildfires to natural visibility. That’s not entirely the division’s fault. The fact is, as the Regional Haze Rule has lowered air pollutants over the past two decades, worsening wildfire seasons in the West have increased a different kind of visibility-impairing particulate: organics. IMPROVE data show huge spikes in organic particulates in heavy fire years: 2020, the year the Cameron Peak fire forced evacuations in Estes Park, was especially high. The problem? EPA regulators behind the Regional Haze Rule don’t have a strategy for addressing the kind of haze that stems from wildfires. The 1999 rule has a narrow focus on reducing human-made sources of pollution, and currently most wildfires are considered a natural source.
IMPROVE’s Copeland says there is debate around whether it makes sense to classify wildfires as human-made, a move that would make visibility statistics look much more dire. Wildland blazes have been an important component of a healthy ecosystem since well before Europeans colonized the Americas, but time and time again, research has linked the recent severity and frequency of some infernos to climate change. “It’s not lost on us that the very pollution causing smog and haze is mostly coming from the production and consumption of fossil fuels, which, of course, is also heating the planet and increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires,” says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental nonprofit located in Santa Fe.
Despite pervasive frustrations with the state implementation plan process, Devore, who used to be an employee at APCD, says Colorado is fortunate to have the AQCC overseeing air pollution. Many other states, including Utah and Nevada, don’t have the same guardrails on their divisions that give permits to emission-producing facilities, monitor air quality, inspect companies that break the rules, and mete out punishments (typically fines).
Still, the APCD has faced criticism beyond the recent rulemaking process—about a lack of transparency, about conflicts of interest, and about its leniency toward industrial polluters—in recent years. Colorado Newsline reporter Chase Woodruff has written extensively about the APCD’s habit of limiting employee interaction with journalists, and a few whistleblowers within the division have accused their employer of putting business interests ahead of complying with the Clean Air Act. Although an independent investigation found in 2021 that the APCD’s pollution modeling system was inadequate, it stopped short of saying the division intentionally broke the law.
Those concerns help explain why frustration has reached a near fever pitch for environmental advocates involved with the regional haze issue, some of whom, with Earthjustice at the helm, threatened to file a lawsuit against the APCD this past March for missing the EPA’s deadline. The warning underscores the sense of urgency felt by those who best understand the nuances of regional haze. However, they aren’t the only ones who comprehend the implications of Colorado being unable to promote healthy air and clear skies.
The tourism industry has been kind to the Gunnison Valley, particularly over the past two years. “We are very much an outdoor recreation destination, and that type of travel exploded during COVID,” says Andrew Sandstrom, marketing director with the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association. “We had our best year in terms of tourism dollars in 2020. Then we topped that in 2021.” At times, however, that good fortune feels precarious to Sandstrom. “So far, we’ve been pretty darn lucky that we haven’t had a major fire directly next to us,” he says. “That could very quickly turn around our tourism in the summer.”
Sandstrom doesn’t just fear the flames—he fears the smoke. His tourism association hasn’t run numbers to see how air quality directly affects visitation, but Sandstrom says he’s noticed fewer people wanting to recreate on the area’s haziest days. And while many days over the past couple of years have boasted clear conditions, the days with the worst visibility were dismal. On those occasions in 2020, the IMPROVE monitoring station in the White River National Forest (the station closest to Crested Butte, roughly 20 miles away) captured readings nearly as bad as those taken in 2002, when the Regional Haze Rule was still in its infancy. It’s impossible for Sandstrom to know if there should be an asterisk affixed to the high tourism numbers for 2020 and 2021, but he worries that the get-me-out-of-this-house desperation caused by the pandemic may have overwhelmed people’s desire to avoid smoke and haze.
Data exist to back up Sandstrom’s anecdotal evidence about the potential consequences of hazy days on tourism. Studies have shown that fewer people visit U.S. national parks when air quality is poor. A literature review found that China and Southeast Asian regions with bad air quality struggled to attract as many tourists as other, less-polluted destinations in that area of the world. Furthermore, case studies tend to confirm the trend. In 1997 and 1998, two particularly bad years for haze-related pollution in Brunei (a country on the island of Borneo, near Malaysia), the country lost out on an estimated $5.8 million in tourism, a huge hit for the small nation.
Human-caused ammonium nitrates and ammonium sulfates were certainly lurking in the air during Gunnison County’s haziest days in 2020, but the main culprit was organic mass, suggesting that the West’s severe wildfire season is mostly responsible for all that murkiness, says IMPROVE’s Copeland. Data from a joint project between Stanford University’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab and National Public Radio’s California Newsroom to map smoke-affected areas in the United States back this up: Gunnison experienced 24 smoky days on average between 2009 and 2013, a number that jumped to 37 between 2016 and 2020.
That gray cloud marring views of Flat Top and South Baldy causes other problems for adventurers and nature lovers in Gunnison County. Particulates in the air mess with the respiratory system, which could turn a day of singletrack cruising on Crested Butte’s popular 401 Trail into a coughing fit. Smoke has also been shown to have an impact on the flight abilities of painted lady butterflies. David Inouye, who researches plant and insect ecology at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic, suspects the same thing might be occurring to the fragile pollinators he studies, which could hurt the flora that draws crowds to the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival each summer.
As the pandemic begins to ease, giving Coloradans more travel options, Sandstrom worries those savvy enough to check the smoke conditions will take their dollars elsewhere. “Not that I blame them,” he says.
Elsewhere. It was what photographer Jason Hatfield craved as a child in the flat Midwest—to be where the scenes were grand, where all that made the land disappear was the horizon. For a while, Hatfield felt like he had found that in Colorado. But now, when he looks through his camera roll, he finds himself thinking of elsewhere again. Where else can he go to capture the vistas he loves? Where else can he find what he needs to support himself? “It’s something I talk about with my fellow photographers: how haze will impact our photography, what it will look like when we’re older,” he says. “We know it’s not going to be as good as it has been. And that seems sad.”
(Read more: Coloradans Say Suncor Is Making Them Sick. Cultivando Intends to Prove It)
This article was originally published in 5280 May 2022.
Angela Ufheil pitches, writes, and edits stories for 5280.com.
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Regional haze is threatening the scenic beauty the Centennial State is famous for.