President Barack Obama and his family have a full day of sightseeing, hiking – and a speech – planned for Saturday in Yosemite National Park.
While the president has some business to attend to, first lady Michelle Obama told Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, on Friday evening that the family plans to “hike all over the park as much as we can.”
Bee staff writers John Ellis, Andrea Castillo, Carmen George and Tim Sheehan and photographers Craig Kohlruss and Eric Paul Zamora are reporting from the park. The White House designates certain members of the media to share their reports and photographs from designated parts of the trip; Ellis and Kohlruss will be the “pool” media Saturday when Obama gives a speech on the 100th anniversary of the national park system.
Check back for updates of this story.
Here is a recording of President Obama’s speech Saturday morning at Yosemite National Park.
4:45 p.m.: From at or near Glacier Point, POTUS and FLOTUS, along with their children Malia and Sasha, hiked down to the Yosemite Valley floor.
They were picked back up along Southside Drive at the bottom of the trail. Hikers were held off the trail to allow the Obamas to do the hike.
2:58 p.m.: While the president spoke, a large crowd gathered across the meadow, craning in hopes of getting a glimpse of Obama.
One woman with binoculars helped some young children get a look, who then exclaimed, “Oh I see him! I see the president!” Another woman standing nearby watched the president’s speech via a live news stream on her phone.
All the excitement also caused some problems for the driver of a large RV. Finding the road ahead temporarily closed, the back of his vehicle hit a tree while trying to turn around in the cramped space.
2:37 p.m.: The president’s visit caused stress for newlyweds Javier and Alexis Saucedo of San Diego, who were married in the Yosemite Valley Chapel at 1 p.m. Saturday.
The groom found the road leading to the chapel closed when he drove in Saturday morning. He was to be married an hour and a half later.
“That’s when I panicked,” the young groom said. “Like, ‘Oh no!’ That’s when I got out and basically ran down here to make sure I got to the wedding.”
Javier estimates it was about two miles. Then when he arrived, he found the chapel empty. Fortunately, around 75 guests – and his beautiful bride – would eventually trickle in.
The couple were warned of possible delays but thought they would have been at the park entrance, not within Yosemite Valley. The couple didn’t hear of the president’s visit until it was publicly announced earlier this month.
But besides the road closure, “everything turned out to be fantastic.”
The newlyweds said it was certainly a “memorable experience.”
“I mean, we made it,” Javier said with a smile. “So that’s all that matters.”
While it caused them delays, they aren’t upset. “We love Obama! We hold no grudge. But, if he wants, he can send us a card,” Javier said with a smile.
2:26 p.m.: After POTUS speech at Sentinel Bridge, motorcade headed west on Northside Drive, crossed the Merced River and headed up the road that comes from the park’s southern entrance, past the Tunnel View with its postcard view of the Yosemite Valley, through the tunnel that anyone who uses the park’s southern entrance knows. Spectacular views of western stretch of Valley, unfortunately dotted with dead trees.
Destination: Glacier Point.
Motorcade stopped short of Glacier Point. POTUS and FLOTUS hiked the area, as FLOTUS made good on her pledge yesterday to Rep. Jim Costa at Castle Airport to do a lot of hiking.
We have now arrived at Glacier Point.
2:12 p.m.: Among the invited guests who had a chance to meet the president were members of Fresh Tracks Leadership Expeditions, an environmental program that coordinates a cultural exchange of teens between Compton and Alaska.
Fresh Tracks member Jared Savage, 17, of Compton said it was “amazing” to meet the president. “He’s done so much for our community and the people in our community,” he said. “Just to see him in person, that close to me, was amazing. His presence and his speech was just so influential on me.”
“When I drove in, I saw all of the trees and said, ‘this is amazing.’ And then I saw my first waterfall and I literally jumped out of my seat. … I’m so blessed to be here today.”
A Fresh Tracks member from Alaska, 18-year-old Esau Sinnok, was also thrilled to shake the president’s hand. “This right hand that I’ve got, shook his hand,” Sinnnok said with a wide smile. “That felt so amazing. I don’t think I’m ever going to wash this hand. … I’ve dreamed of meeting (the president) ever since I got involved in environmental work.”
For Sinnok, from the island of Shishmaref, north of Nome, this trip to Yosemite for the president’s speech was his first time at any national park.
“The cliffs and the waterfalls really got me; that was just overwhelming,” he said. “Man, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime feeling.”
Sinnok said he was moved when the president “said that youth around here don’t really get involved with outdoors, and we should take action to let them get involved.”
“Everybody should feel the same experience I’m feeling,” he said. “It’s amazing to be out here in the national park. … That’s what I hope to help with in the Fresh Tracks program.”
2:07 p.m.: Adriana Orozco, 40, rode up to Cook’s Meadow after Obama left. She and her family, who live in Los Angeles, vacation every year in Yosemite around the Fourth of July.
She knew she wouldn’t get to hear Obama speak but was happy to see the aftermath and witness how much work his visit took to prepare.
Orozco said she didn’t grow up visiting Yosemite or other parks. She started coming 10 years ago because she and her husband, both teachers, were looking for a simple place for a family vacation.
“That first year we came, I was just mesmerized,” she said. “My experience with the parks and the trees was through books. It made me realize books don’t do this kind of place justice.”
Orozco said she understands why the president wants more children to access national parks. Her own three children, ages 11, 15 and 17, love going to Yosemite.
“They feel a sense of freedom,” she said. “Every little thing, even if it’s just walking to the Merced River, feels like an adventure.”
1:51 p.m.: Mark Wellman, a former park ranger who is the first paraplegic person to climb El Capitan and Half Dome, said he felt lucky to converse with the president and shake his hand after the speech.
Wellman said he told Obama about his climbing accomplishments, to which the president replied, “I can see that – look at the guns on you!”
The El Capitan climb took place in 1989 when Wellman was 29. Now he’s 56 and spends much of his time working with disabled youth and veterans, teaching wheelchair users adaptive climbing. He hopes to get more funding so that the trips can include disadvantaged and disabled youth.
Wellman said Obama’s speech was on target and moved him. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay area but frequently visited Yosemite as a boy.
He said all kids should have the same access to national parks as he did.
“People from all over the world come to Yosemite, but then you have people in the Central Valley who say, ‘I’ve never been there,’ ” he said. “It blows my mind.”
1:46 p.m.: Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher met with President Obama for about a half hour on Saturday morning to discuss the challenges facing the park and its future.
“You could tell he had an emotional connection to Yosemite, even though this was his first time here,” Neubacher said. “I was just very impressed. He was very genuine.
“He’s very knowledgeable and he’s emotionally connected to these sacred places in the National Park Service,” Neubacher added. “He’s very interested in the threat of climate change on public lands and on the planet.
EVERY KID IN A PARK
Neubacher talked about the president meeting with a group of about 25 fourth-graders at Yosemite Falls earlier in the morning. “He surprised them and a couple of them were tearing up, that here’s the president and first lady coming over … kids who are disadvantaged and a little bit at-risk.
“Both of them, the president and the first lady, are just so genuine about their love and admiration for programs developed by the Park Service and youth programs in general.”
Neubacher said the president expressed awe over the massive scale of the landscape of the Yosemite Valley. “He said to me as we walked back that there are just few places on this planet that have the grandeur that we have, and the scale with the cathedral walls and the waterfalls … He mentioned that it just emotionally connected him, and it kind of reduces the stress a little bit to get outside.
“He wants to get out and about, really wants to get on the ground and do some hiking and look even deeper at Yosemite.”
Neubacher said President Obama’s remarks about climate change hit close to home.
“Yosemite does have signs that climate change is upon us. The glaciers are disappearing. The pika (a small rodent) is moving to higher elevations. Some bird species are moving north.
“We’ve had a drought, and they’re saying droughts are going to increase and we’re going to have less snow, which feeds the Central Valley and all the agriculture industry. Over time these climate change influences are going to be more and more profound.”
1:28 p.m.: Eleanor Rodriguez, 65, volunteered with her husband to chaperone their grandson’s summer school class on a visit to the park. The class from Campus Park Elementary in Livingston got to meet Obama before listening to him speak at Cook’s Meadow.
Fabian Conejo, 8, is going into fourth grade. He said the president shook his hand, then gave him a yearlong pass to Yosemite. The two didn’t exchange words, but Fabian said the experience was nonetheless exciting “because I’d never met him before – only on TV.”
Rodriguez said she has been to Yosemite a couple times, but this was the first with her grandson. The family participates in other outdoor activities frequently.
“We like taking our kids fishing and hunting,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t afford it, so it was nice he gave them a pass.”
1:22 p.m.: Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman said the president personally passed out free national park passes to a group of fourth graders, offered through the Every Kid in a Park initiative, during a private event at the base of Yosemite Falls on Saturday morning. The fourth graders, from the Livingston Police Explorers Program and Miraloma Elementary School in San Francisco, also attended the president’s morning speech in front of Cook’s Meadow.
Gediman said Yosemite National Park has given out 4,000 to 5,000 free park passes through the Every Kid in a Park initiative, more than any other national park, since the program started in September. He said about 1,100 of those went to fourth graders in Merced County, and that almost all of them had never visited Yosemite before.
“He connected with the schoolchildren, he addressed the groups, it’s just huge,” Gediman said. “And also, with his conservation legacy, he’s been incredibly supportive of the national parks. … I was there at the landing, and you could tell right away that the president, the first lady and his family, they love the parks, and it just is so genuine.”
Gediman, who has worked in Yosemite for over 20 years, is also honored that the president chose to visit Yosemite during the National Park Service’s centennial year.
“You come here, and whether you’re here for an hour, a day, a week – just spending the time here in Yosemite, it stays with you.”
Still, Gediman said, “We can’t assume that the next generation is going to value national parks the way we do. … So reaching out to the young people is a very deliberate effort to create a love and a connection with the parks. … We can’t just be complacent, we have to be active in reaching out to the young people.”
12:46 p.m.: Lois Martin, 72, was invited to hear Obama speak as a representative of indigenous peoples. Martin is chairwoman of the American Indian Council of Mariposa County, also known as the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation.
Martin shook Obama’s hand after his speech but left feeling less than inspired.
“It was interesting to hear, but he never mentioned the first peoples who lived here. That was disappointing to me,” she said.
Obama was the second president Martin has seen in person. The first was John F. Kennedy in 1962. Back then, she said, the roads weren’t blocked and security wasn’t as prominent.
Martin agreed with Obama’s points about the need to preserve the environment. American Indians feel that’s their job too, she said, adding that her family history in the area goes back 10,000 years. She lived in Wahhoga Village, which she said was the last established Indian housing in Yosemite, as a child.
But Martin was undeterred from making sure her people receive proper recognition by the president. “I think I’ll write him a letter and tell him,” she said.
12:28 p.m.: The president’s visit also delayed a number of visitors’ plans. Rock climbers David Rozul and four of his friends were stuck waiting all morning to go bouldering in Camp 4.
The guys from San Diego passed their time relaxing on their large cushioned crash pads under some shady oaks. At noon, park rangers finally allowed them and a large crowd at the corner of Village Drive and Oak Lane to walk into the east side of Yosemite Valley.
The wait was a little frustrating for Rozul, but the 25-year-old is also excited to be near Obama.
“He’s enjoying the giant slabs of granite like us,” Rozul says with a smile.
He and his buddies joked that perhaps the president would appear later at a chunk of granite called the Presidential Boulder to work on his climbing moves with them.
“It would be so cool if Obama was a climber,” Rozul said. “Maybe one day in the future, after he’s done with his presidency and wants time to relax, he can always hit us up, we’ll meet him here. Hopefully there won’t be as many Secret Service or barricades.”
11:27 a.m.: Obama notes 100th anniversary of national park service will be celebrated in August.
He points out that his administration has protected 265 million acres of public lands and waters, including offshore waters. He has preserved the second-most public lands of any administration and had more victories under the Endangered Species Act than any other administration.
The president calls on all Americans to visit their local national park.
He points out how parks are valuable for local communities and their economies. Every dollar invested in a park creates $10 for the local economies.
“As we look back over last 100 years, there is a lot to celebrate. As we look to the next century, the next 100 years, the task to protecting our sacred spaces is even more important.”
Climate change is the biggest challenge. “It is no longer a threat, it is a reality.” He notes Yosemite’s largest glacier, once a mile wide, “now is almost gone.”
The president says that “the idea that these places that sear themselves in your memory could be lost to history cannot be taken lightly.”
He says we must not scrap international treaties just put together to deal with climate change. “This planet belongs to all of us. It is the only one we’ve got. We cannot put lip service to that notion.”
The president he was 11 when he went to Yellowstone. It marked his first visit to a national park.
“I remember being an 11-year-old kid seeing a moose in a lake. First time we drove over a hill and suddenly a field full of deer. First time I saw a bear and her cubs. That changes you. You are not the same after that.
We have children all over this country who never see a park … we have to change that. The beauty of the national park system is it belongs to everybody.”
Obama closes the short address with “To all the dads out there, Happy Father’s Day, guys.”
No other formal events are on the president’s calendar Saturday. But the media pool will stay with the president should he decide to see more of Yosemite’s landmarks.
11:27 a.m.: In speech, @POTUS Obama says he Protected 265M acres during time in office. More than any administration in history.
11:26 a.m.: President Obama welcomes the audience and talks about the spectacular beauty of Yosemite.
“There is something sacred of this place,” he says, noting how the spirit of America itself is right here.
11:20 a.m.: President has arrived at Cook’s Meadow.
10:48 a.m. from the Agence France Press pool report: From Lower Yosemite Falls Loop, the President will participate in an interview for National Geographic with Richard Bacon, host of National Geographic’s Explorerprogram.
President Obama will also become the first sitting President to participate in a virtual reality video experience. The virtual reality video will feature the President’s visit to Yosemite and include a conversation with Don Neubacher, superintendent of Yosemite National Park.
The virtual reality film, shot by National Geographic, Facebook and its Oculus team, and Felix & Paul Studios, will be released in August to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service.
10:45 a.m. from the Agence France Press pool report: One additional interaction (HT Stacey Klein from NBC) :
As POTUS and FLOTUS were distributing National Parks cards to the kids, a boy turned to the president and said : “Happy Father’s Day for tomorrow.”
“Thank you!” POTUS answered.
10:30 a.m.: Rangers on horseback present colors, national anthem now being sung. Won’t be long now.
10:29 a.m.: Ming Zhu, 47, was invited to hear the president speak because her husband, the grandson of Ansel Adams, owns the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village. Zhu, originally from China, was excited to see the president for the first time.
After meeting the Dalai Lama, Zhu said Obama is “second on the list.”
Since immigrating to the United States 20 years ago and joining the Adams family, Zhu said she has learned a lot about the importance of Yosemite. She also learned Yosemite is the sister park to Huangshan National Park, which is near her hometown.
“I’m glad to be here,” she said.
10:25 a.m.: Among the invited attendees waiting for POTUS is Rue Mapp of the nonprofit Outdoor Afro.
Mapp, from Oakland, said her organization’s goal is to “celebrate and inspire African Americans to reconnect with national parks.”
“We want to impress on the President to issue a memorandum ensuring that national parks stay relevant and vital for the next 100 years,” Mapp said.
And, she adds, “I want people to get their outdoor swagger back.”
10:20 a.m., from the Agence France Press pool report: The motorcade departed POTUS hotel at 9:53 am on a sparklingly sunny day.
After a short drive, with hikers waving along the way, we stopped at a Park facility where a dozen kids, seating on the floor, were waiting for POTUS and FLOTUS.
Wearing dark jeans and a cream shirt, POTUS starting chatting with the enthusiastic group.
“Hey guys! How are you doing? Are you guys having fun? You know Michelle? When did you guys get here?”
First Lady Michelle Obama, wearing black clothes and a black hat, then joined the conversation.
“How are you going to scare bears away?” she asked.
As all the kids started screaming, POTUS responded : “Oh, I would get out of here!”
POTUS then told the kids about the Every Kid in a Park initiative, launched early 2015 by the White House.
“We want to make sure that you and kids all around the country get a chance to use the national parks more often,” he said, before he started distributing the cards, together with FLOTUS.
Barack and Michelle Obama then sat on the floor for a picture with the group. POTUS made sure all kids were smiling. “Everybody say cheese. Everybody say national parks.
Everybody say happy birthday,” he added, mentioning a birthday girl in the group.
“Who is going to help me up now?” he added.
Pool holding in the bus.
Next stop is the Sentinel Bridge, in the Yosemite Valley, where POTUS will be delivering remarks, with a spectacular backdrop : the Yosemite Falls, highest waterfall in the Park (dropping a total of 2,425 feet).
The remarks are open press.
10:15 a.m.: First POTUS stop: Yosemite Falls. A group of youngsters await the president, who is now coming up in jeans and a rolled-up shirt. First lady Michelle Obama with the president.
He’s talking with the kids about the importance of visiting the national parks.
“How many of you guys have been to a national park?” Obama asked.
He said he wanted to make sure the kids – and kids across the nation – get the chance to visit the nation’s national parks. And visit often.
POTUS highlighting Every Kid in a Park program to the kids. President and Mrs. Obama handing out the passes to kids and took a group photo.
POTUS had kids say “cheese,” “national parks” and “happy birthday” (it was the birthday of one of the kids) for the picture. Under Every Kid in a Park program fourth graders can go to the Every Kid in a Park website and download a pass for free access to students and their families to all federally managed lands and waters – including national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and marine sanctuaries.
10:10 a.m., from the Agence France Press pool report: Item: National Geographic announced on its Facebook page that they would shoot, together with Facebook, “the White House’s first 360 virtual reality video experience and capture President Obama visiting Yosemite National Park.”
Your pooler has asked the WH for more details about what access the National Geographic team would have and when and how the video would be released.
9:56 a.m.: Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler, whose district includes communities near Yosemite’s south entrance, hopes the president noticed the massive tree die-off in the Sierra Nevada.
Wheeler’s message to the president: “While you’re here, please look at our forests, it’s really important.”
Wheeler wants a federal state of emergency declared, which would provide the region with more funding to address the dead trees. “It takes him (Obama) and Congress to get this corrected.”
9:55 a.m.: At 9:53 am motorcade headed out from Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
9:42 a.m.: Tom Bopp, who has played piano at the Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Lodge) and the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly The Ahwahnee) since 1983, plays tunes as media and guests assemble for President Obama’s remarks Saturday in front of Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park.
One of his songs touted the joys of “roughing it” in the park: “I want to camp at the Majestic, just like the swell folks do.” (“I had to revise the lyrics,” Bopp added.)
9:32 a.m.: Set-up in progress at Cook’s Meadow ahead of @POTUS arrival.
9:30 a.m.: Music plays while awaiting the president’s arrival.
9:22 a.m.: A woman waving a tiny American flag is among a group of bystanders as the media bus drives by.
9:18 a.m.: Republican Congressman Tom McClintock, whose fourth district includes Yosemite, is among the many waiting to see the president.
“Many gateways depend upon tourism generated by Yosemite visitors for their economic prosperity,” McClintock said. “So the more attention paid to Yosemite Valley the better.”
Of the policy he’d like the president to be aware of during his visit: “The political issues continue to be to fulfill the promise of the original Yosemite Grant Act, which is public use, resort and recreation for all time.”
McClintock also stressed the severity of the tree die-off in the Sierra, but said it’s not possible to declare a federal state of emergency for the dying forest.
He said studies indicate as much as 85 percent of pine stock in the Sierra is dead.
McClintock, who also chairs the house federal lands subcommittee, said it’s crucial the Obama administration supports restoring “sound forest management” practices in the Sierra, which includes logging more of the dead trees.
McClintock also stressed the importance of public access to public lands.
9:12 a.m.: Press buses heading to Sentinel Bridge now. Several hundred invited guests also going through security screening.
8:55 a.m.: POTUS back to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (aka the Ahwahnee). Pool is holding.
8:45 a.m.: POTUS morning workout finished. 8:42 departure from recreation center. Motorcade moving. Visitors along the road waving at the motorcade.
8:23 a.m.: In a parking lot near Camp 4, media and invited guests are going through security checks and credentialing before taking shuttle buses to Sentinel Bridge, where POTUS is scheduled to speak this morning.
7:57 a.m.: First stop of the day at a recreation center inside Yosemite for POTUS to do his morning workout.
7:57 a.m. from the pool report by a reporter from Agence France Press: The president left the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel, at 7:37 a.m.
7:21 a.m.: Bee reporters rise and shine for today’s assignment covering President Obama.
Obama’s visit comes just ahead of the centennial anniversary of the national park system on Aug. 25. In remarks scheduled for late Saturday morning, he is likely to encourage Americans to visit national parks and talk of coming challenges – including those from climate change.
As Obama nears the end of his presidency, he wants to make public lands relevant to all Americans, to think big on conservation and to continue to invest in public spaces because they return important economic benefits to the communities that surround them.