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Obama heads west to highlight national parks

Darlene Superville
Associated Press

Washington — 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 threatening it faces over the next 100 years, including climate change and chronic underfunding by 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 White House planned the trip to give Obama an opportunity to recap his record on preserving open spaces as well as to promote administration initiatives that aim to boost tourism at the more than 400 national and other parks, monuments, battlefields and other sites, including the White House, in the system.

Officials say there’s an economic case for supporting these sites: They sustain tens of thousands of jobs and visitors pump billions of dollars into surrounding economies.

The Interior Department said in a report Friday, hours before the president, his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha, boarded Air Force One for the cross-country flight, that national parks, wildlife refuges, national monuments and other public lands it manages saw an estimated 443 million recreational visits last year, up from 423 million in 2014.

The visits were responsible for $45 billion in spending and sustained about 396,000 jobs nationwide.

“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 parks to highlight the natural beauty that the administration asserts could be lost or forever damaged if rising seas, hotter temperatures and drought conditions that together contribute to more intense forest fires, aren’t dealt with, along with other effects of 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 most popular national parks, with about 4 million people visiting each year. It is best known for its waterfalls, but also boasts ancient giant sequoia trees and a vast wilderness area.

The long weekend out west will cap a difficult week for Obama. The week opened with the news that a lone shooter had gunned down 49 party-goers inside an Orlando, Florida, night club early Sunday. A somber Obama addressed the nation hours later, labeling the shooting as an “act of terror and an act of hate” and bemoaning the easy access to firearms.

By Tuesday, Obama was angrily denouncing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s renewed call for a temporary ban on most foreign Muslims entering the U.S. The Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, was an American-born Muslim.

On Thursday, Obama flew to Orlando to mourn the deaths with the nightclub victims’ loved ones.