Forty-seven of the nation's most spectacular natural and historic areas, from Florida's Big Cypress swampt to California's Death Valley, would receive strict federal protection from industrial air pollution, under an Interior Department proposal.
The proposal, to be made public today, could bring major conflicts with energy projects such as strip mines and power plants at a time when President Carter is pushing for rapid expansion of coal development to replace imported oil.
Dozens of the largest energy projects are proposed for Western states, within a few miles of National Parks and National Monuments. Already, governors and congressional delegations from Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico are objecting that the Interior Department move would stifle industrial growth.
The governors of the states and the Indian tribes affected are supposed to make the final decision on whether the strict federal rules should apply. However, should they eliminate any of the areas, Congress will be under pressure from local and national environmental groups to protect them through legislation.
Today's proposal comes at a time when the national parks are under more presusre than ever before from industrial and energy development. A recent survey by the National Parks and Conservation Association found that two-thirds of park superintendents felt their parks resources were threatened by mining, logging, grazing, dredging or industrial plants.
While 48 national parks were accorded strict protection from any air pollution by the 1977 Clean Air Act, much of the damage was already done and the government is now wrestling over how to correct it.
Under the 1977 act, however, 83 national monuments in the park system -- by and large smaller than most parks -- were to be studied for possible protection under the air quality provision. Of those, 36 monuments are being recommended today for protection, as well as a national preserve, and 10 Bureau of Land Management Primitive Areas.
Among these, potential conflicts with development include:
The Chaco Canyon National Monument, a 21,000-acre area in New Mexico, which contains 2,200 prehistoric archeological sites, including some of the largest ruins in the United States. Major coal deposits within two miles of the monument have prompted proposals for strip mines, slurry lines, power plants and gasification plants. Air pollution from such facilities could cause fragile pictographs and petroglyphs to deteriorate quickly, archeologists contend.
Death Valley National Monument, California, a 2-million-acre desert of spectacular sand dunes and distant mountain vistas. The Defense Department is proposing to set up a 1,000-square mile warfare training center just south of the monument border. Park service officials say that bombing activity and vehicle traffic through the area will stir up 1.7 million tons of dust a year, threatening the valley's wildlife and ecology. However, some area residents support the facility for its economic benefits.
Congaree Swamp National Monument, South Carolina, a 15,000 acre majestic swamp forest that contains the last major tracts of virgin southern bottomland hardwood in the U.S. The park service wants to protect the trees, many of them 200 to 300 years old. However, the State Department Board and Chamber of Commerce fear the new rules could present expansion of pulp and paper plants and other industry.
Glacier Bay National Monument in southeast Aslaska, a 2.8 million-acre wilderness of glaciers, forests and mountains. Oil exploration is beginning in the nearby Gulf of Alaska and a 400-acre tract within the monument contains 20 patented nickel mining claims. Lands along the borders are subject to logging and mining.
Barbara Brown, head of the park service's air quality division, said the new restrictions "would not necessarily preclude development in the vicinity" of the areas. "You couldn't have a large coal-fired power plant a mile away, but maybe you could 20 miles away," she said.
Depending on terrain and prevailing winds, industrial plants might be permitted anywhere from five to 50 miles from a strictly protected park or monument.
Of the more than 90 areas studied for strict protection, 48 were rejected because they were in populated areas or did not require pristine visibility -- for example, Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the Booker T. Washington and George Washington birthplace monuments in Virginia, and the Statue of Liberty.