MY FAMILY used to spend a week or two every summer in Shenandoah National Park or its immediate vicinity. We stayed at Skyland, just off Skyline Drive in the park, or at a farm in a small pocket valley west of Swift Run Gap.
Our days were filled with walking the trails in the park, climbing Stony Man and Hawksbill mountains, descending to Dark Hollow and Whiteoak falls and looking for deer and other wildlife. Some days we would drive the length of the Skyline Drive, down to where it joins the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The north entrance of the Skyline Drive is hardly more than a two-hour drive from Baltimore. This road follows the crest of the Blue Ridge for 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park, giving views of mountains jumbled up close at hand and valleys spread out below. Since it was completed in 1939, it has become known as one of America's most scenic roads.
But the scenery is fast deteriorating. There are many days when the valleys are filled with haze and the mountains, near and far, can hardly be seen, if indeed they can be seen at all. Air pollution, mostly from coal- and oil-burning power plants, is wreaking havoc with the scenery of the park. Air pollution has reduced visibility by an estimated 50 percent. But it seemed that the figure was more than that when we were there for several days recently. It was a far cry from what it was when we took the kids there.
With all this, some 18 coal- and oil-burning power plants are proposed for the state of Virginia. The National Park Service has protested the issuance of permits for these plants unless they contain restrictive conditions on emissions. So have local and national conservation groups.
Air pollution is not the only pollution problem in the park. Streams which once contained trout in large numbers are now polluted as a result of acid rain. South of Shenandoah Park, near the Peaks of Otter on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a stream, formerly a trout stream, has the tell-tale color of acid pollution on rocks in its bed. I doubt that there is any life in that stream, let alone trout.
Air pollution is not peculiar to Shenandoah National Park. Farther south in Great Smoky Mountains National Park the famous blue mist, which on some days fills the valleys and gives the mountains their name, has become thick white haze. North in Maine, visitors to Acadia National Park on the far Maine coast are given health warnings because of the heavily polluted air. Across the country at the Grand Canyon, one of the scenic wonders of the world, summer haze comes from as far away as Los Angeles, although by far the worst pollution is caused by the Navajo generating station, only 10 miles from Grand Canyon National Park. At times, you can't see clearly across the canyon.
These parks and others need not be grossly polluted. Amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1977 specifically protect visibility in the national parks. The more recent Clean Air Act of 1990 provides additional protection.
But neither law has been enforced. Despite talk, the present administration and the previous one have shown little interest in environmental matters.
The means are available to reduce the pollution by as much as 90 percent, if not more. This would be expensive, however, and rates for electricity would be sure to increase. This always leads to protests by industry and by consumers who apparently give little thought to the effects of the increasing use of air conditioning, dish washers, dryers -- you name it. The demand keeps growing for these aids to comfortable living.
The national parks have been called America's "prized possessions." They are just that. They provide healthful recreation -- re-creation -- in the truest sense of the word -- for millions of Americans. Keeping them healthy and healthful for their users is important.
To us in Baltimore, Shenandoah Park is a possession to be appreciated and protected. It is just beyond our doorstep.
John T. Starr writes from Baltimore.