Obama gets personal with Yosemite in speech, long hike

President speaks about the 'wonder' of Yosemite

"I've got a painting of Vernal Fall and Half Dome, but it looks slightly better in person," President Barack Obama says, getting a chuckle from the crowd as he talks about his impressions of Yosemite National Park during his remarks in front of Yo
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"I've got a painting of Vernal Fall and Half Dome, but it looks slightly better in person," President Barack Obama says, getting a chuckle from the crowd as he talks about his impressions of Yosemite National Park during his remarks in front of Yo

President Barack Obama mixed business with pleasure here Saturday, touting the importance of national parks and then seeing one up close for himself as he took in the sights at what is arguably the crown jewel of the national park system.

After an early morning workout, Obama was joined by first lady Michelle Obama for a photo op with youngsters near the base of Yosemite Falls. In the afternoon, the first family visited Glacier Point and hiked from there back to the Yosemite Valley floor.

In between, Obama made a 13-minute speech – which comes two months ahead of the National Park Service’s centennial anniversary – in which he touted his administration’s work in protecting and expanding federal lands, but he also cautioned of dangers faced, primarily from climate change that he said already is being felt – including in Yosemite.

The beauty of the national park system is it belongs to everybody.

President Barack Obama

“Climate change is no longer a threat; it is a reality,” Obama told a crowd of invited guests.

In Yosemite, he said, meadows are drying up, the park’s largest glacier is in retreat and the pika, a small mammal, is heading to higher elevations in search of a livable habitat.

In his morning speech, Obama cited his credentials for being an environmentally friendly president:

▪ His administration has protected 265 million acres of public lands and waters. That is the second most by any administration.

▪ He has had more victories under the Endangered Species Act than any other president.

Seeing Yellowstone

Such accomplishments had their root in his young life. The president was 11 when he went to Yellowstone on his first visit to a national park.

“I remember being an 11-year-old kid, first time I saw a moose in a lake. First time we drove over a hill and suddenly there was a field full of deer. First time I saw a bear and her cubs. That changes you. You are not the same after that.”

Obama said he wants everyone to share that feeling. “We’ve got kids all across this country who never see a park  we have to change that. Because the beauty of the national park system is it belongs to everybody.”

The president called on all Americans to visit their nearest national park. He noted how parks are valuable to local communities and their economies. Every dollar invested in a park creates $10 for the local economies, Obama said.

“As we look back over the last 100 years, there is plenty to celebrate about a national park system that is the envy of the world. But when we look to the next century, the next 100 years, the task of protecting our sacred spaces is even more important.”

You could tell he had an emotional connection to Yosemite, even though this was his first time here.

Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher on meeting the president

Before the speech, the president and first lady gathered with schoolchildren from Livingston and San Francisco.

The Obamas seemed to enjoy visiting with the youngsters, with the president asking them how they were doing.

Obama talked with the schoolchildren about the importance of visiting national parks. “How many of you guys have been to a national park?” Obama asked.

He said he wanted to make sure the youths – and kids across the nation – get the chance to visit the nation’s national parks.

The Obamas handed out free entry passes to the kids and posed for group photos, telling them to say “cheese,” “national parks” and “happy birthday,” as it was the birthday of one of the children.

Afternoon at Glacier Point

Business out of the way, the Obamas, including daughters Malia and Sasha, set out to see some of the sights. Driving up out of the iconic Yosemite Valley, past the postcard-perfect views of Tunnel View, the first couple and their children hiked an area near Glacier Point, and then from the point itself hiked nearly five miles back down to the valley floor.

That made good on the first lady’s promise to Fresno Congressman Jim Costa during a conversation Friday at Castle Airport that the family was “going to hike all over the park as much as we can.”

Moment with the president

Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher met with 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.”

Neubacher said Obama’s remarks about climate change hit close to home.

“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,” Neubacher said. “Over time these climate change influences are going to be more and more profound.”

Tree die-off

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.

Anyone heading into the mountains sees scores of dead, red pine trees standing out in stark relief to the still-alive green trees that remain.

Wheeler’s message to the president: “While you’re here, please look at our forests, it’s really important.”

The combination of drought and the bark beetle, which devour pines, has had a major impact, said Rep. Tom McClintock, the Republican whose 4th Congressional District includes Yosemite.

McClintock said it’s not possible to declare a federal state of emergency for the dying forest. Even so, 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.

Note of disappointment

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,” she said. “That was disappointing to me.”

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 is 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.

John Ellis: 559-441-6320, @johnellis24. Staff writers Andrea Castillo, Tim Sheehan and Carmen George contributed to this story.