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.