A historic moment in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park was electric Saturday as President Barack Obama stepped out near Sentinel Bridge and spoke, politically at times, about the value of the park system and battling climate change during the first visit by a sitting commander in chief since John F. Kennedy in 1962.

“It looks slightly better in person,” Obama said with Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls pouring behind. “I mean, look at this scene. You can’t capture this on an iPad, or a flat screen, or even an oil painting. You’ve got to come here and breathe it in yourself.”

During his speech - after thanking park rangers, Superintendent Don Neubacher, and Congressman Tom McClintock - Obama continually stressed the importance of maintaining national parks for future generations.

“The beauty of the national park system is it belongs to everyone,” Obama said. “It is a true expression of our democracy. The notion is that we all look after ourselves, our families, we work hard, and we make money ... but there’s something else we have in common. A place that we share. A place where we connect with each other, and connect to something bigger than ourselves.”

As part of work to keep the parks safe, during the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Obama pressed lawmakers to increase their efforts on climate change.

“When we look at the next century, the next 100 years, the task of protecting our sacred spaces is even more important,” Obama said. “And the biggest challenge we’re going to face in protecting this place, and places like it is climate change. Make no mistake, climate change is no longer a threat, it’s already a reality. Here in Yosemite, meadows are drying up, bird ranges are shifting farther northward ... Yosemite’s largest glacier, once a mile wide, is now almost gone.

“The parks belong to all of us, this planet belongs to all of us,” he continued. “It’s the only one we’ve got. And we can’t give lip service to that notion, then oppose the things that are required to protect it. We have to have the foresight, and the faith in the future, to protect our parks and our planet for generations to come.”

Obama also promoted his “Every Kid in a Park” program - fourth-grade students get free access to all national parks at - and other efforts to get the public, primarily children, out enjoying the beauty of places like Yosemite.

Tom Wheeler, District 5 Madera County Supervisor, said before the speech he hoped Obama would talk about the tree mortality crisis in California, where 29 million forest trees, and counting, are expected to die.

“It’s about time he came up here to see what we have,” Wheeler said. “Hopefully he’ll look around and see what bad shape our forests are in. A lot of people I’ve talked to, my team members, we’ve been writing him letters and emails, all sorts of things, to make sure he looks at all these dead trees.”

Obama didn’t speak directly on the threat of dying trees, but noted wildfire seasons are becoming longer, more expensive, and more dangerous throughout the Western United States.

Wheeler said despite that, the trip may help influence Obama to declare tree mortality a federal emergency in the future, which would free up funds for fire prevention and related projects both for the state and private landowners.

After his roughly 13-minute speech, Obama briefly spoke to some of the 200-member guest crowd and shook hands, including that of Candi Cheathon, a postal worker from Sacramento.

“I felt softness,” laughed Cheathon, who couldn’t wait to tell her 93-year-old grandmother about the experience. “But really, it was warm. It was just like wow, this is really happening. It was kind of surreal, because this is history. I witnessed part of history.”

The President, his wife Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia visited Carlsbad Caverns Friday before Air Force One landed in Atwater later that day. They were then flown to Yosemite via Marine One, and Obama arrived for his speech via ground transportation.

After the speech, Obama reportedly began touring the park with his family, and returned to the White House Sunday.