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Did You Hear the One About President Obama's Trip To Yellowstone National Park?


Judging from the president's frenetic schedule, it doesn't sound as if the First Family will have time to view the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River or enjoy a sunset over the Firehole River at the Upper Geyser Basin. Kurt Repanshek photos.

August, thanks to its hot and humid nature in the political capital of the universe, Washington, D.C., usually is the time politicians head to the hinterlands. Why else but the dreadful weather would Congress annually schedule its summer getaway not in June or July, but in August? And while most presidents see the month as their own opportunity to escape the bluster and fury of Washington, President Obama decided to take the opportunity not to flee the spotlight, but take it with him on his windshield tours of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks.

Sadly, this is not a vacation for the First Family, not by any stretch of the political imagination. Rather, it's a shirt-sleeves photo op, an expensive one at that when you factor in all the jet fuel, motorcades, and security details. (I mean really, if you want to find a crowd in a national park, head to Old Faithful in August. I'm curious to see how they managed the crowds around the venerable geyser so the First Family could catch a glimpse.)

After appearing Friday night at a townhall meeting in Belgrade, Montana, to defend efforts to overhaul the country's health care system, President Obama and his family headed to Yellowstone today. After a whirlwind tour of the Upper Geyser Basin, the president was off again, this time to Grand Junction, Colorado, for another townhall meeting, then to Grand Canyon on Sunday for another windshield tour that will cause more congestion and security hassles for the folks who are really on vacation. Park officials say some areas of the South Rim could be closed for a couple of hours while the Obamas get a glimpse of the ruddy maw.

This click-and-dash trek to the parks by the First Family, understandably, is not being overlooked by those with grist to grind. For instance, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence took the opportunity of the Obamas' trip to argue once again against concealed weapons in national parks, a rule-change the administration wouldn't touch with a ten-foot-pole earlier this year after U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, used political sleight of hand to attach an amendment allowing such behavior to wildly popular legislation aimed at reining in credit card companies.

"Thanks to successful litigation by the Brady Campaign and major national parks organizations, the Obama family will be able to enjoy their upcoming visits to America's national parks protected, not only by Secret Service, but also by the Reagan Administration policy that keeps loaded guns in the hands of civilians out of national parklands," Paul Helmke, president of the organization, said in reference to a successful, though now meaningless, legal battle against the rule change the Bush administration pushed through back in December.

"Unfortunately, because Congress passed and President Obama signed legislation allowing weapons in national parks beginning in February (2010), other families will be unable to enjoy the same level of security next year when loaded firearms, including semi-automatics, will be permitted in most national parks across the country.

"There is still time for Congress and the President to take steps to keep loaded firearms away from the valleys of Yellowstone, the cliffs of Yosemite, and the Statue of Liberty, but they need to act quickly."

No response from the National Rifle Association. Yet.

Over at the National Parks Conservation Association, they saw the president's trip as the perfect opportunity to lobby for better funding of the National Park System.

“We are delighted that President Obama and his family, like thousands of others across the country, are taking advantage of the National Park Service’s free admission weekend to visit Yellowstone National Park. The President’s visit underscores the important role our national parks play as living classrooms, and the need for additional funding to ensure these educational opportunities remain available across the country," said Senior Vice President for Policy Ron Tipton.

“From the roaming bison at Yellowstone to the battlefields of Gettysburg, our national parks have tremendous potential for teaching and exciting children about our shared history as well as science, civics, and a variety of other topics. The upcoming centennial of the Park Service in 2016 gives us the opportunity to improve educational opportunities involving national parks to inspire and teach our future historians, educators, and scientists.

“There is an approximate $600-million annual operating shortfall and a backlog of maintenance projects that exceeds $8 billion, and more than $2 billion of private land to be acquired within park boundaries. We must ensure our national parks are well funded to address the parks’ crumbling historic buildings and trails, enhance the Park Service’s ability to protect wildlife, and provide needed public education and services. Further, as our nation becomes more diverse our national parks should fully represent our evolving history, culture, and diversifying population. By adding more park sites to the system we can make park visits more meaningful to all Americans.

“We hope Americans take this opportunity to visit a national park this weekend and reconnect with our national history, culture, and irreplaceable American treasures."

What follows guns and money when you're talking to politicians? Why, legislation of course! So, the president's trip presented Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. public lands program, the perfect opportunity to lobby for an overhaul of the 1872 Mining Law.

Unfortunately, an obsolete 19th century law that gives the mining industry the right of way at every turn is putting the popular and enduring program in jeopardy. In fact, it recently took emergency action to halt new claim-staking around Grand Canyon National Park to respond to the threat of uranium mining. But neither this treasure nor dozens like it will be safe until Congress intervenes," she wrote.

Signed by President Ulysses S. Grant with prospectors and pack mules in mind, the 1872 Mining Law allows gold, uranium and other hardrock metals to be mined from most western public lands almost for free and with few restrictions. Today, with global corporations dominating mining, this means roughly $1 billion worth of precious metals are removed from public land without compensation, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates -- a hefty sum for a federal government facing deep deficits.

Hopefully, Ms. Danowitz added, when the president and Congress return from their summer vacations they'll take the time to rewrite this law.

Many in Congress also believe it's time to act. The House of Representatives has previously passed a strong bipartisan reform bill, while a balanced package proposed by Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, is now gaining momentum. Perhaps the president will return from his vacation with a new resolve to protect what he and his family have enjoyed. If national parks are indeed America's best idea, we shouldn't let them be harmed by an outdated mining law.

Not to be overlooked in this political climate is the actual climate. Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, saw an opening to urge President Obama to take note of the red and grey pine trees in Yellowstone, victims of bark beetles and evidence of climate change.

After anchoring the Rocky Mountain high country for thousands of years, the whitebark pine is threatened with extinction by a modern ill. The greenhouse gases that are heating our planet have warmed the northern Rockies just enough to allow the native mountain pine beetles to flourish at high elevations where few could thrive before now.

As a result, whitebark pine trees are under siege by these ravenous beetles. Right now as much as 70 percent of these ancient trees are already dead in parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

The First Family will see this ongoing disaster in the form of lifeless trunks gone grey where green and healthy spires once reached for the skies.

With such an issue-laden laundry list, this trip to Yellowstone and Grand Canyon will not be relaxing for the First Family. Which is a shame. Doesn't sound like they'll have time to stroll down to Lone Star Geyser or stand nearby on the bridge over the Firehole River, to walk up to Observation Point for a panoramic view of the Upper Geyser Basin, or visit West Thumb. They won't spend a night in the grandest log cabin in the world (that'd be the Old Faithful Inn), or have a chance to catch the baleful howling of wolves hanging in the cool night air. And when they reach the Grand Canyon on Sunday, will there be time to hike a short distance down the South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge, or to climb to the top of the Watchtower at Desert View, or visit Hermit's Rest?

We cherish our national parks -- much hoopla surrounds Ken Burns' upcoming documentary on the history of the parks, the Obamas are visiting on an entrance-fee-free weekend designated by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with hopes of luring more visitors to the parks -- and yet we rush the First Family through them. What Barack, Michelle, and the kids really need is a month to explore and enjoy the parks. Give them time away from photographers, correspondents, lobbyists, and angry Americans to reflect on the beauty of the country and deepen their appreciation for the national parks, to recharge their souls and start anew.

After all, all those other issues will be waiting when their vacation is over.


Well Jim, depends on your idea of way ahead of time. It was posted on this web site 8 days before he came and was in the national news as well. His order of travel was posted with a full day traveling from park to park which meant he could only be in Yellowstone in the morning. We are a world of complainers and some complain louder than others. I agree that the road closer would have sucked and the National Park Service should have warned travelers up on entrance during the week leading up to the visit that they could expect long delays on that morning in that area of the park. I bet it would of happened any way.

FYI, his trip was not announced way ahead of time ... (it just seems like it in today's ever shorter news cycle)

DC does not shut down for presidential motorcades or visits (though there can be some really bizarre perimeters for the right sort of hairtrigger event -- you can get close to a hotel when the Pres speaks at it, but when the World Bank and IMF are in town, you can't get within 500 yards sometimes); I've gotten close to several in my times ... even was able to protest W's motorcade multiple times and Cheney another time ...

On a lot of the posts about people complaining, it was clear that they were right wing; nevertheless, I can't imagine being too happy about it (no matter how far I swing the opposite direction).

My own political preferences (or perhaps lack thereof) are well known; I'm not terribly impressed by anyone in power - left or right or dead center. I was much more interested reading the account of the chef in the Old Faithful Inn, the accounts of travelers, of a cyclist who was outside the park and saw something go by, and of the general reaction to it. In our upstairs/downstairs world, I guess I'm a downstairs kind of guy.

There's a lot of important Yellowstone news in recent days, a lot of interesting accounts by travelers, a lot of people sharing the well of ideas. In the small matter of Obama's visit, I think it could have been mitigated and that at least in the couple days of warning on the itinerary, that people could have been better alerted as to road closings and such. That kind of information would have been far more useful than what we got out of media reports. And, it couldn't have really been a security issue--one newspaper even reported the plane departure time from West Yellowstone.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Anybody complaining about him halting traffic should pull their head out of where ever they hide it. This was announced way ahead of time. Either you were in a jam because you wanted to be close to our president or you are an idiot for not altering your to do list for the great Yellowstone-Grand Teton area. There is so much you could have been doing not far away. So if your an idiot get over it and don't blame the president for your poor planning. You can't see the park in 1/2 a day anyway, so just needed to plan that part of the day elsewhere. As I said in my other post. I am glad he went to my favorite Park and hope good comes of it. I also agree with d-2 post; Obama gets briefed before hand and that is very important to we who hold the park dear.
Dave Crowl

I will go along with Rick B. comments. Geez, this President is walking on egg shells, every move, word or deed is under a severe microscope by a element of people that must be purely jealous of clear academic frame of mind...most rational and pragmatic then most U.S. Presidents we had in the past...especially after the last one. His pick for the next National Parks Director (Jon Jarvis) was a brilliant move. Kathy, most basketball junkies also hike, bike and climb mountains and I'm one of them.

Kathy & Jim McDonald, come on. You both ARE out on a limb.

Especially you, Mr. McDonald, who should know better. The Secret Service dominates these trips, and unless the President goes out of the way to curtail what they say they must do -- and just the time involved to micro-manage the Secret Service makes that kind of forcing changes in things like road closings -- REALLY impractical. If any of Mr. Obama's staff were to try to intervene, you can bet the Secret Service would tell them they would be responsible if something happened to the President.

Mr. Obama's trip was not that disruptive. Now, when President Clinton visited Baltimore to watch an Orioles baseball game, now THAT was disruptive to a national park! The Secret Service had him land his helicopter right in the middle of Fort McHenry. The helicopter stayed there the entire time of the game. Unlike Yellowstone, McHenry is small, and that meant the entire park took no visitors whatever during any of these surprise trips. So, get a grip and compare this trip to other Presidential Trips. How about a G-8 conference?

It is important that a President visit National Parks. The disruption will be momentary. Even if Kathy is right -- brushing aside the obvious bias -- and the President knows nothing about Parks, it is great that he now is learning something. Does ANYONE on this blog realize a trip like this means the President gets briefed in advance? That means pro-park people get a chance to give him the basics facing the NPS, something that almost never happens. Do you realize how difficult it is, with so many things going on, for any US agency to get a moment to raise the President's awareness of its issues?

Please, people, get a grip!

I just wanted to clarify that I didn't notice my username after I tried posting (it was the anonymous post earlier) and I posted again after I was logged in. There was a certain similarity since I was trying to recreate the same line of thinking. I don't want to give anyone the impression that I'm using sock puppets to bolster my own posts.

He said he hadn't been to the Grand Canyon since he was 11. I am his age and I've been there something like 6 or 7 times and I've never lived close by.

He's into basketball as his sport, rather than hiking. It's not a bad thing. But national parks are not his thing.

Why in the world does the right-wing continue to realize that you lost. We won. And to whine about Obama visiting our national parks and other treasures of the west tells thinking Americans that you were sound asleep during the eight years of the worst presidency in the history of this country. The bumbling failures are so obvious I don't need to list them. And what about Georgie Porgie spending a huge amount of time, spending a huge amount of OUR money, jetting back and forth between DC and Texas, or even DC and the family compound in the ultra, ultra community of Kennebunkport Maine. Fair is fair. You are not.

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