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P resident Barack Obama arrived in Yosemite National Park late Friday, en route from Atwater in Merced County and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. He’ll be in Yosemite for the weekend.
Will Obama see firsthand the devastation of bark beetle infestation and drought stress that has killed an estimated 29 million dead trees up and down the Sierra Nevada? Will the president see any of the 400 square miles incinerated by the 2013 Rim Fire?
The answers depend on Obama’s schedule and his administration’s agenda. So far, the president’s trip to Yosemite is being portrayed as a Father’s Day getaway and as a nod to the 100th anniversary of the creation of America’s national parks system.
Asked Thursday what the Obama administration is doing about tree mortality and fire concerns on federally managed lands in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, shared perspective.
They spoke during an on-the-record press conference call with reporters billed as “Economic Benefits of America’s National Parks.”
Vilsack, who as Secretary of Agriculture oversees the U.S. Forest Service, said his staff are trying to focus on tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada.
“We have allocated an additional $31 million to California for exactly this issue,” Vilsack said. “We expect to see more dead trees. We want to do more restoration work. It’s hard when we’re spending more than 50 percent of our budget on fire.”
A 2015 Department of Agriculture fire budget report is titled “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work.” The report documents the growth over the past 20 years of the portion of the USFS budget that’s dedicated to fire, and the impact those rising costs have on recreation, restoration, planning and other activities of the Forest Service.
From 1995 to 2015, wildland fire management appropriation more than tripled its portion of the Forest Service budget, from 16 percent to 52 percent, reducing forest system funding by nearly $475 million in 2015 dollars, according to the federal report.
“We are anxious to do more,” Vilsack said Thursday. “With a cooperative Congress that can do more with the fire budget problems, we would do more.”
Vilsack said he’s especially concerned about populated communities in the nation’s fire-prone forests.
“We’ve got 70,000 communities in the wildland urban interface,” Vilsack said. “It’s important for Congress to fix the budget problem.”
Jewell, as Secretary of the Interior, oversees the U.S. Park Service and the national parks system. She emphasized the president’s visit in terms of the park service centennial being celebrated this year.
“With regards to the president’s visit, we’re encouraging visitors to get out and see the beauty of our national parks,” Jewell said. “While it would be great if President Obama could see the burned-out areas, it’s Father’s Day. We hope he sees the beauty in Yosemite National Park that inspired his favorite president, Lincoln.”
Responding to advocates and recently published photos of Yosemite Valley, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864. Historians say it was the first U.S. federal government act to protect wild lands for preservation and public use. Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were ceded to California as a state park. In 1890, an act of Congress created Yosemite National Park. The national parks system was created in 1916.
In opening remarks during the press conference call, Goldfuss said climate change is the biggest threat to America’s national parks, with effects including “stronger storms” and “longer fire seasons.”
More than 70 percent of Tuolumne County lands, including Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite, are managed by federal agencies.
California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in October 2015 as record drought conditions exacerbated bark beetle infestation killing tens of millions of trees up and down the state. Brown sought federal action to help mobilize resources for safe removal of dead and dying trees.
“California is facing the worst epidemic of tree mortality in its modern history,” Brown said in a letter to Vilsack. “A crisis of this magnitude demands action on all fronts.”