It's Raining Nitrogen In A Colorado Park. Farmers Can Help Make It Stop : The Salt Scientists say too much airborne nitrogen from farms is throwing off the ecological balance of Rocky Mountain National Park. So the federal government is hoping weather alerts for farmers will help.
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It's Raining Nitrogen In A Colorado Park. Farmers Can Help Make It Stop

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It's Raining Nitrogen In A Colorado Park. Farmers Can Help Make It Stop

It's Raining Nitrogen In A Colorado Park. Farmers Can Help Make It Stop

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park has sparkling alpine lakes and stunning fields of summer wildflowers. It also has a problem. In recent years, nitrogen pollution from industry and agriculture has started to threaten the very things that make the park special. A group of farmers is stepping up to preserve the park and to avoid regulation. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC sent this report.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: It's snowing on Rainbow Curve, a stretch of road at nearly 11,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park.

JIM CHEATHAM: So it's pelting us in the back but not too bad.

RUNYON: That's Jim Cheatham, a biologist with the National Park Service. These snowflakes pelting us are carrying more than just water.

CHEATHAM: Chances are, it is carrying the excess nitrogen that we're talking about.

RUNYON: Scientists here have watched the amount of nitrogen in the park's soil and water increase steadily over decades. Nitrogen in and of itself isn't bad, Cheatham says. But think about your yard or garden.

CHEATHAM: What if you applied that fertilizer - and that's exactly what it is - at that rate, 15 times what's on the label? Weird things are going to happen.

RUNYON: Weird things like mountain streams becoming more acidic and weeds creeping into places they've never been before, crowding out the park's iconic wildflowers. Last year, an algae bloom popped up in a high alpine lake.

CHEATHAM: Never been seen before, never been documented before.

RUNYON: If nitrogen keeps coming in at this rate, things could look a lot different in 20 years. To keep this pollution out of the park, the scientists have enlisted the help of...

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

RUNYON: The state's growing dairy industry.

JON SLUTSKY: My name's Jon Slutsky. I'm a dairy farmer in Wellington, Colo.

RUNYON: Just to set the scene here, Wellington and the farm's 1,500 cows are about 50 miles northeast of Rocky Mountain National Park. Like most farms, Slutsky's dairy is a nitrogen-producing machine.

SLUTSKY: So ammonia is created out in the corrals.

RUNYON: Ammonia is a nitrogen-based gas, definitely part of the pollution problem. The cows drop manure and urine into the soil where it gets mixed up and sloshed around.

SLUTSKY: It makes ammonia, gets mixed in the air, goes to the park.

RUNYON: But it only moves that way when the weather conditions are just right. When wind comes from the east, it blows nitrogen particles from Slutsky's dairy and from his fellow farmers all the way up to the park.

SLUTSKY: We are right in the flight zone, if you will.

RUNYON: But it's a rare event, happens only about 12 times a year. That's where his smart phone comes in. Slutsky and about 50 other farmers signed up for an alert system to let them know when the wind might blow the wrong way. The voluntary program is the brainchild of several government agencies, including the National Park Service.

SLUTSKY: If there's an event coming and we see that it's going to be on Sunday and that's the day we turn compost, maybe we'll turn it on Saturday, or maybe we'll wait.

RUNYON: Other farmers might decide not to fertilize a field or move manure that day to keep nitrogen out of the air.

SLUTSKY: If it - if there's 12 days out of the year that we have to be a little more careful and we can, we will.

RUNYON: The program is in its second year, and early results show that if farmers are given enough warning, 2 out of 3 of them will change their practices. But there isn't enough data yet to know if this will have a long-term effect on Rocky Mountain National Park's ecosystems. Slutsky says farmers have either their conscience or the hammer of regulation hanging over their heads.

SLUTSKY: In the long run, it's easier for us to do it than to have them force us to do it - easier pill to swallow.

RUNYON: Slutsky says sometimes, just the threat of regulation can get farmers to attempt to solve pollution problems on their own. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colo.

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