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First Family Vacations In National Parks, President Obama Prioritizes Climate Action

President Barack Obama speaks by the Sentinel Bridge, in the Yosemite Valley, in front of the Yosemite Falls which is the highest waterfall in the Park at Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Saturday, June 18, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JACQUELYN MARTIN
President Barack Obama speaks by the Sentinel Bridge, in the Yosemite Valley, in front of the Yosemite Falls which is the highest waterfall in the Park at Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Saturday, June 18, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JACQUELYN MARTIN

President Obama and the rest of the First Family are on vacation, and at the top of the agenda is talking about climate change.

On Friday afternoon, the Obamas visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and for the rest of the weekend they are in Yosemite. In Roswell, New Mexico, the town’s mayor and Governor Susana Martinez (R-NM) greeted Air Force One on the tarmac before the Obamas went to the park. After the First Family descended 754 feet underground on an elevator (Elevator One?) to Carlsbad Caverns’ famous Big Room, they talked with park rangers and the president marveled “how cool is this?” looking at the chamber’s stalactites and stalagmites, according to a White House Pool report.

Later Friday evening after a flight to California, the Obamas took a Marine One helicopter flight “over a breathtaking landscape” to their forest hotel in Yosemite National Park, “with the Half Dome lit by the sun in the backdrop and the moon detaching itself from a pristine blue sky.”

The pool reported their arrival as “maybe one of the most beautiful Marine One landings ever.”

After visiting with a group of children to tout the Every Kid In A Park initiative on Saturday morning, the president delivered a speech at picturesque Sentinel Bridge.

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“There’s something sacred about this place,” President Obama said. “It’s no wonder then that 150 years ago President Lincoln protected the land under which we stand.” He spoke about the importance and majesty of the National Park System, how much land has been protected, and what his administration has added — 265 million acres of public lands and waters, which is more than any president in history.

“For this Centennial, we’re asking all Americans to find your park,” he continued, detailing efforts to open up access to more Americans: veterans’ families, fourth graders, and more.

Yosemite was protected by Congress and President Lincoln in 1864, and formally added to the National Park System when it was established 100 years ago.

“When we look to the next century, the next hundred years, the task of protecting our sacred spaces is even more important,” Obama said. “And the biggest challenge we’re going to face in protecting this place is climate change. Make no mistake, climate change is no longer just a threat, it’s already a reality. I was talking to some of the rangers here. Here in Yosemite, meadows are drying out, bird ranges are shifting farther northward, alpine mammals like pikas are being forced further upslope to escape higher temperatures. Yosemite’s largest glacier, once a mile wide, is now almost gone.”

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He described the threat posed by more intense wildfires with climate change, and noted that soon there could be no more glaciers at Glacier National Park, and no more Joshua trees at Joshua Tree National Park. Indeed, experts say that many national parks and world heritage sites are threatened by climate change. This has economic implications — the National Park Service estimated last year that climate change could cost more than $40 billion in damage to parks.

“That’s not the legacy I think any of us want to leave behind,” he said. “The idea that these places that sear themselves into your memory could be marred or lost to history? That’s to be taken seriously — we can’t treat these things as something that we deal with later, that it’s somebody else’s problem.”

Threatened By Climate Change, National Parks And World Heritage Sites Draw MillionsClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian, File With spring now in full gear throughout most of the United States, it…thinkprogress.orgIn a likely nod to recent political remarks, Obama said, “it shouldn’t lead to careless suggestions that somehow we don’t get serious about carbon emissions that are released in the atmosphere, or that we scrap an international treaty that we spent years trying to put together to deal with this.”

“The parks belong to all of us. This planet belongs to all of us. It’s the only one we’ve got. We can’t give lip service to this notion but then oppose the things that are required to protect it.”

Obama touted his accomplishments on climate change but said we need to do better. He ended his remarks with a life-changing memory of visiting Yosemite when he was 11 years old, and seeing bears, seeing a moose in a lake for the first time. Not all kids get to see that kind of thing, and that needs to change, he said.

“There’s this part of us that is part of everybody. Something we have in common. Something we share. A place where we connect with each other, and connect with something bigger than ourselves. What an incredible idea. What a worthy investment. What a precious thing we have to pass on to the next generation. Let’s make that happen.”

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Some have criticized the president for going on vacation a week after the Orlando mass shooting, echoing similar criticism he received in 2009 for visiting Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon during the Great Recession.

The trip happened on Father’s Day weekend and a week after Malia graduated from high school.

Yet it’s important not only to understand that the president can walk and chew gum at the same time, but also that this is a working vacation where the president made the case for curbing climate change and boosting conservation investment.

Civil Rights, Conservation Groups Announce New Effort To Make National Parks More DiverseCREDIT: AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian A new coalition of civil rights, environmental justice, and conservation groups called…thinkprogress.orgIt is also a visible demonstration of the importance of diversity in America’s national parks. This is something many groups called the president to do this year in a statement asking him to prioritize a vision of inclusion and increase the racial and ethnic diversity of visitors to public lands.

This push occurs in the face of a countervailing effort to sell off America’s public lands by conservative extremists.Public lands are under domestic threat both in congress (in the form of the so-called Anti-Parks Caucus) and outside of it (in the form of extremists like Ammon Bundy).

Secretary of State John Kerry was also on the road this week, touring the Arctic to see the impact of climate change firsthand. He will have trouble seeing the sea ice that is normally there, as the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported an ice extent drop unlike anything they’ve seen before. Obama himself became the first sitting president to visit north of the Arctic Circle last summer in Alaska, meeting with climate refugees facing the prospect of abandoning their village due to erosion and sea level rise.

On Friday National Geographic announced that to celebrate the Centennial, “this weekend National Geographic, Facebook and its Oculus team, and Félix & Paul Studios, will shoot the White House’s first 360 virtual reality video experience and capture President Obama visiting Yosemite National Park.”