Obama’s Yosemite visit a call to preserve national park system

President Barack Obama waves as he and the first family leave Yosemite Valley on Marine One from Ahwahnee Meadow, where a public viewing area was sectioned off across the road Sunday.
President Barack Obama waves as he and the first family leave Yosemite Valley on Marine One from Ahwahnee Meadow, where a public viewing area was sectioned off across the road Sunday. ezamora@fresnobee.com

President Barack Obama departed this iconic natural wonder Sunday afternoon at the end of a weekend mini-vacation, but it was clear he hopes the business end of the visit is what resonates with the nation in the long term.

The National Park System turns 100 in August, and Yosemite is older than that, but Obama was looking forward.

During remarks Saturday, the president spent a good amount of time detailing how climate change is adversely affecting all the national parks, and gave specific examples of that in Yosemite, including retreating glaciers and drying meadows. He and First Lady Michelle Obama met with youngsters near Yosemite Falls, where the president pushed his Every Kid in a Park initiative, which lets fourth graders nationwide download free passes for themselves and their families to visit national parks and federal lands for free. And administration officials ahead of Obama’s visit talked up the economic advantages for communities located near national parks.

The message was clear, said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman: the nation must protect its National Park System and the lands it oversees.

To secure that future, climate change must be addressed, coming generations need to visit the parks to remain supportive and understand their importance to the nation’s heritage, and the general public needs to understand that they are an investment that offers good returns not just to visitors, but to businesses near the parks that rely on those visitors for their livelihood.

Everyone loves Yosemite. But in 50 or 60 years, who knows?

Scott Gediman, Yosemite National Park spokesman

Given the importance of that message, the irony is that the business part of Obama’s visit was very small – officially just the photo opportunity with the children and his brief remarks to invited guests, both on Saturday. The rest of the time Obama, along with Michelle Obama and their children Malia and Sasha, spent their first visit to Yosemite getting to know – up close – some of the Valley’s greatest natural wonders, though the park as a whole is so much more than that.

Many of those monuments of nature are obvious, as they are part of the sweeping vista that can be seen from the famed Tunnel View location, and likely was seen by Obama as he flew into Yosemite Valley on Marine One. There was El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. On Saturday Obama got a good view of Yosemite Falls and then hiked extensively near Glacier Point, and then down from the popular viewpoint to the Yosemite Valley floor.

"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

On Sunday the first family, after Obama’s morning workout, headed to the Happy Isles trailhead, and then hiked the Mist Trail, which winds up toward Vernal Fall, and then on to Nevada Fall. It is unknown how far the first family hiked on the trail, but estimates were that they were gone around 2  1/2 hours. Paired with Saturday’s hikes, the amount of walking Sunday verified Michelle Obama’s vow to Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, to do a lot of hiking on the visit.

The presidential entourage left the Majestic Yosemite Hotel – formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel – around 2:15 p.m. and headed to the nearby Ahwahnee Meadow. Both Obama and Michelle Obama shook hands and briefly visited with several park rangers and then departed the valley, headed back to Castle Airport in Atwater.

There, a large crowd of a couple hundred people gathered at the chain-link fence to catch a glimpse of the president and and his family as they arrived from Yosemite Valley in Marine One and walked the short distance to Air Force One.

Many brought umbrellas to ward off the sun. Many had waited several hours for the Obamas, and temperatures climbed into the low to mid 90s by the time they arrived. As the first family stepped out of Marine One, the president saluted the two Marine guards who opened the helicopter’s doors, then waved to the crowd as he and his family moved toward the stairway. At the top of the stairs, the president and his wife turned and waved once more before retreating into the plane for the flight home.

As Obama leaves, people are left to assess the legacy of his visit, which comes almost 54 years after the last sitting president to come – John F. Kennedy in August 1962.

"I want to make sure every kid feels that," President Barack Obama says as he tells how parks impressed him as a kid and why more kids need to get exposed to parks during his remarks in Yosemite National Park on Saturday, June 19, 2016.

Gediman said the choice of Yosemite for Obama to make his remarks ahead of the National Park Service’s centennial is particularly important, given its place in the history of not only national parks, but the entire idea of setting aside land for preservation and for all people to visit. It was President Abraham Lincoln who in 1864 signed the Yosemite Grant Act, which was the first time any country in the world had set aside land for preservation.

“The whole idea of national parks began here,” Gediman said.

In that context, Gediman said, Obama’s visit “was just monumental.” The legacy, he said, is a renewed and continued commitment to the American concept of national parks. There is no guarantee than in a century, U.S. society will see the value of national parks. That is why it is important to have national park visitation more reflect the diversity of American society, he said. Already, there have been suggestions – or more – to eliminate parks or to open them to such things as oil or natural gas exploration.

It’s never happened to Yosemite, Gediman said, but if the visitors stop coming, maybe the whole concept of visitors goes with them.

“Everyone loves Yosemite,” he said. “But in 50 or 60 years, who knows?”