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Like past presidents, Obama celebrates the grandeur of Yellowstone

It's also a chance for the president to see how national parks - likened to Europe's cathedrals - need political and fiscal support.

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The demography of national park visitors remains overwhelmingly white. But the country is changing, and in order for large nature preserves to maintain cultural relevancy -- as well as earning political and fiscal support -- they need to resonate with all citizens, including African Americans and Hispanics, now the fastest growing ethnic groups in the country.

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When Obama draws upon Yellowstone as a touchstone to his boyhood, and sets out to share the park again with his wife and children, it matters, Duncan notes. Moreover, he sees Obama’s visit as having a direct parallel with one taken by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during the height of the Great Depression. In fact, in 1937 FDR delivered a “fireside chat” over the radio from Yellowstone.

“Yellowstone is a uniquely American invention,” Duncan says. “The National Park System is also an American idea. The very notion of setting aside the most spectacular places in the country for everyone, rather than just for the rich or nobility, came from us, and it, in turn, spread across the world. It is part of who we are as a people, embedded in our civic DNA.”

Both FDR and Obama fit the profile of activist presidents confronting huge, unprecedented economic challenges. Roosevelt confronted high unemployment by directing large sums toward creating the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC put millions of Americans back to work blazing hiking trails through parks like Yellowstone, building bridges and visitors’ centers, all of which are still used today.

Although Obama isn’t looking on this brief respite as a policy mission, Ron Tipton with the National Parks Conservation Association says that if he looks around he’ll notice some of the maintenance issues facing the park system.

Agency officials are struggling with an estimated $600 million annual operating shortfall and a maintenance backlog pegged at a staggering $8 billion. Plus, park ranger ranks have been thinned due to funding that hasn't kept pace with inflation.

Tipton believes that using federal stimulus money to rebuild parks would give sacred places like Yellowstone a new shine of polish, put people to work, and perhaps recruit skilled laborers from urban areas who might not otherwise go to Yellowstone and other wildlands but who would bring back a lasting positive impression to their families -- just like Roosevelt’s CCC did.

“Too often, government is portrayed as something that is separate from the people instead of being an extension of them,” Duncan says. “This is a place where the president can remind the rest of the country about not just the specialness of Yellowstone but that parks are part of their inheritance. They belong to all of us, no matter who we are.”

Also: A history of presidential visits to Yellowstone National Park
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