A Pristine Park Begins To Fade

Big Bend National Park in Texas

The Big Bend National Park in west Texas is in the middle of nowhere, all 800,000 acres of it. Big Bend is 300 miles from the nearest city, a spectacular area of desert badlands, rugged mountains, river canyons and breathtaking vistas, at the tip of Texas along the Rio Grande border with Mexico. As CBS News Correspondent Maureen Maher reports for CBS News Sunday Morning, it is worth the trip.

But air pollution is wafting over Big Bend. The situation is so bad that Big Bend has just been named one of the 10 most endangered parks in the nation. There is trouble in paradise.

It used to be that, on a good day, you could see more than 100 miles in any direction across Big Bend, but those days are few and far between now. In recent months, visibility has been as low as nine miles.

For the pollution, there are the usual suspects, of course: old coal-burning power plants in east Texas, a couple of plants in northern Mexico. Perhaps even global industrialization; some experts say the pollution we see in Big Bend today may have been generated in Asia two weeks ago. It is a sensitive issue: For its part, Mexico denies any responsibility; the U.S. says it's working on the problem.

When he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush was blamed for not closing loopholes exempting older coal-burning power plants in his state from complying with newer, tougher EPA standards. Now, stung by criticism that he hasn't done enough to protect the environment, President George W. Bush has appeared recently at national parks from California to Florida.

His message: "It is not enough to regulate and dictate from afar; to preserve places like this, we must bring to our work a new spirit of respect and cooperation – what I call a new environmentalism for the 21st century."

That "new" environmentalism includes a regional haze reduction program to compel some plants to reduce emissions, and a $5 billion clean-up effort for the national parks, including Big Bend. However, critics point out that none of that money will be used to improve or protect air quality.

Says Dave Simon, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, "The problem with the kind of voluntary programs that President Bush has supported in the past is…it's kind of like asking all the pigs in the barnyard to get in line for a bath: There's a lot of squealing going on, but not a lot of cleaning."

Simon and other environmentalists are fearful that President Bush is stalling on initiatives to national parks and wilderness areas. They point to his reneging on a campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at power plants and to his continued push for oil drilling in Alaska's arctic wilderness.

Says Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Bush administration, "Yes, he did change his campaign pledge. But he did stand up before the people and say, 'I changed.' He didn't try to hide it and pretend it was anythig else. He said, 'I face an energy crisis.'"

And how does the president get past this image problem, that he is more for industry than he is for the environment?

"Keep doing what he's doing for the environment," says Whitman.

Tell that to Jack Lamkin, a park volunteer who first came to Big Bend 45 years ago with his wife on their honeymoon.

Back then, he says, the park was picture perfect. Too remote, too pristine to be touched. He sees the difference today.

"When I see the Chisos, which are 30 miles away, and I feel like I can reach out and touch them…or the Roseos mountains, I fee good. But when I walk outside and I can't see nine miles to the Roseos, and the Chisos are just a shadow, it hurts," says Lamkin.

"If that mountain range becomes occluded," says John Forsythe, an air quality technician at Big Bend, "what does that say about our future in such a remote isolated place? There are no factories out here. What does that then say about a place like Dallas, for example, or St. Louis…the increasing pollution they're feeling, if we're feeling it out here?"

For Big Bend superintendent Frank Deckert, what is happening there is an early warning -- or a late one.

Says he, "The national parks are the cathedrals and the great works of art that are equivalent of what's in those other countries, and we need to preserve them as well, so we can be inspired by them as well."

Big Bend National Park is not a place you just stumble on. It's in the middle of nowhere. You've got to want to go there. Each year, more than 300,000 people go, as to a cathedral, in the middle of nowhere.

It is a wonder.

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