WASHINGTON (AP) — After an emotionally trying week, President Barack Obama is heading west to celebrate the raw beauty of America’s national parks as the system nears its 100th birthday, and highlight challenges over the next 100 years, including climate change and a shortage of money from Congress.
Obama was taking his wife and daughters on a Father’s Day weekend getaway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico and Yosemite National Park in California.
The family vacation will give Obama the opportunity to recap his record on preserving open spaces and promote administration initiatives aimed at boosting tourism at the more than 400 national and other parks, monuments, battlefields and other sites in the system, including the White House.
Officials say there’s an economic case for supporting the sites: They sustain hundreds of thousands of jobs while visitors pump billions of dollars into surrounding economies.
The Interior Department said in a report Friday that more than 305 million people visited national parks last year. They spent $16.9 billion in nearby communities.
“I want to make sure that the American people are able to enjoy the incredible national parks, the incredible beauty, the mountains, the oceans that have been one of the greatest gifts that we’ve ever received,” Obama said in a Facebook video about the trip. “And I want to make sure that the whole world is able to pass on to future generations the God-given beauty of this planet.”
Obama has protected more than 265 million acres of public lands and waters from development, more than any other president, the White House said. Environmental and advocacy groups applaud what Obama has done so far, but have been urging him to exercise his authority under a 1906 law to put even more public spaces off limits before he his term ends in January.
Some members of Congress accuse Obama of overreach every time he uses that authority to create a national monument without their input.
Congressional objections aside, Obama will use the postcard-perfect scenery at both of the parks he’s visiting with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha, to highlight the natural beauty that officials assert could be lost or forever damaged by climate change.
Also hampering the national park system is an estimated $12 billion in deferred maintenance, including on roads and facilities.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the National Park Service and discussed the president’s trip with reporters on Thursday, said the agency relies more heavily on donations every year to help meet its financial needs. The park service was created in August 1916.
Carlsbad Caverns in the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico has more than 119 caves, which were formed when sulfuric acid ate through the surrounding limestone.
Yosemite, near Fresno, California, is among the 10 most popular parks, with about 4 million people visiting annually. It is known for its waterfalls, but also boasts ancient giant sequoia trees and a vast wilderness area.
The park visits will cap a difficult week for Obama that opened with Sunday’s shooting deaths of 49 party-goers at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub by a lone gunman. On Thursday, the president flew to the Orlando to mourn the deaths with the victims’ loved ones.