President Barack Obama, standing before the backdrop of a waterfall cascading from soaring mountains, extolled the national parks Saturday and urged Americans to cherish and protect the country’s natural beauty.
“We have to have the foresight and the faith in the future to protect our parks and to protect our planet for the generations to come,” Obama said at Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. “Let’s make that happen.”
The president’s visit to Yosemite, after a stop at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico Friday, comes as the National Park Service prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in August. The service, which Obama called “the envy of the world,” was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916.
For the centennial, “we’re asking all Americans to find your park, so that everyone, including those from under-served communities, can experience these wonders,” Obama said.
Obama was celebrating one of the federal government’s most popular programs: the park system had a record 307 million visitors in 2015.
Obama said many natural wonders are at risk from climate change, echoing warnings he made in Alaska in September. Rangers at Yosemite had relayed a list of effects that the changing climate was already having, such as drying meadows and disappearing habitats for the pika, a small, round mammal.
“Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. No more Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park,” Obama said. “The idea that these places that sear themselves in your memory could be marred or lost to history should be taken seriously.”
The more immediate challenge is the national parks’ budget shortfall. Deferred maintenance that would cost $12 billion across the parks system means leaky toilets, crumbling roads and unsafe bridges at various parks, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Thursday.
While Obama’s last two budget requests included more money for the parks in anticipation of a surge of interest for the centennial, Congress hasn’t approved his request. As the maintenance backlog has grown –– up $440 million just last year –– the park service has sought other funding, including corporate sponsorships.
Congressional funding for the parks service fell about 8 percent between 2005 and 2014, adjusted for inflation, according to a report released in December by the Government Accountability Office. Fees, donations and other funding sources increased 39 percent during that time.
Some Republicans have criticized Obama for expanding the National Park Service by designating new monuments and protected lands, despite budget problems.
Obama has protected more than 265 million acres of federal lands and waters from development, more than any other president, according to the White House.