Fourth-grader Tyrell Price Jr. smiled proudly as he spoke about meeting President Barack Obama early Saturday near the base of Lower Yosemite Fall.
“We were at a place near the bathrooms and they came down walking,” Tyrell, 9 years old, said near Sentinel Bridge before Obama spoke to a group of invited guests with Upper Yosemite Fall as backdrop.
“We sat in a circle,” said Tyrell, who came to Yosemite from San Francisco with about a dozen classmates with the NatureBridge, a nonprofit that provides environmental education programs in Yosemite and five other national parks.
“We took a picture and he gave us cards,” Tyrell said of the president. “It’s a free pass to get in all the parks.”
Tyrell showed his “Every Kid in a Park” card and said the best part was getting to shake hands with Obama. He paused and said, smiling again, “It was a good feeling.”
Tyrell was among thousands of visitors who came to Yosemite Valley this weekend and shared it with hundreds of White House staff, Secret Service personnel, bomb-sniffing dogs, extra park rangers and law enforcement, as well as motorcycle officers and black sport utility vehicles that comprise a presidential motorcade.
Mother Lode guests
Mother Lode residents in Yosemite Valley for Obama’s visit included Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Jeanne Higgins, Groveland District Ranger Jim Junette, Dusty Vaughn, public services program leader for the Groveland district, and Mary Moore, hydrologist and Rim Fire Recovery coordinator for the Stanislaus National Forest.
“If he has questions, or anyone has questions, we’re here to answer them,” Moore said.
Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, who represents Tuolumne and Calaveras counties and the rest of the 4th Congressional District, had a front a row seat to hear Obama speak.
“Forest health and restoration,” McClintock said when asked what he hoped the president would talk about. “That’s going to require legislative action. The answer is to manage our federal forests the way we used to.”
Obama’s visit to Yosemite, the first by a sitting president since 1962, is being billed as a Father’s Day getaway for the First Family, and a chance to promote the 100th anniversary of the creation of the national parks system.
The 44th president and his motorcade arrived shortly after 11 a.m. Cheers rose up from some of the invited guests and Obama waved and beamed to the audience as he walked to a podium.
“Hey everybody, how nice is this?” the president said of the setting, next to a healthy meadow many hues of green, below stark, stone cliffs a thousand feet high and taller, with Yosemite Falls pumping behind him.
Obama introduced McClintock and continued, “This is a park that captures the wonder of the world. There’s something sacred about this place. It’s no wonder that 150 years ago President Lincoln protected this ground we stand on.”
Obama said he’s tried to build on the nation’s legacy of conservation and preservation, and he’s proud of his administration’s record of protecting public lands and the environment. He said there’s plenty more to do for future generations.
“We have more work to do to preserve our lands and resources,” Obama said. “We are seeing longer and more expensive fire seasons. The parks belong to all of us. We have to protect these places.”
When the president was done speaking, he spent time shaking hands and talking with people who crowded up against log barriers to greet him. Soon his motorcade was in motion again, whisking him back across the Valley closer to Yosemite Falls.
Getting youth involved
Vaughn, the public services program leader for Groveland Ranger District, said he liked hearing Obama talk about the Every Kid in a Park program because it’s made a difference locally.
“We’ve had students from five different local elementary schools come out and plant trees at Sweetwater Campground,” Vaughn said, indicating the campground is part of a designated recovery area in the 2013 Rim Fire scar.
“We did it last year and this year, with a grant to help pay for transportation, we had more than 200 students come out,” Vaughn said. “Many of them were on our district. That total is forest-wide, for the entire Stanislaus National Forest.”
Whether the president will see any of the 400-square-mile Rim Fire burn during his Yosemite visit, or if he’ll see evidence of drought and infestation that’s killed an estimated 29 million trees up and down the Sierra Nevada, depends on his preferences and schedule this weekend.
McClintock is still touting the Resilient Federal Forests Act, introduced in June and passed by the House but killed by Senate Democrats.
“Forty years of the National Environmental Policy Act have consigned our forests to benign neglect,” McClintock said. “We have roughly four times the tree density, forest density we used to. If you look around Yosemite, you can see the tree mortality is reaching crisis proportions.”