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.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Barack Obama walks with Park Ranger Katy Duffy as he and his family tour the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park on Saturday.

Presidents have been making the cross-country jaunt to Yellowstone National Park for 116 years, part of a summer ritual known to generations of Americans. This weekend, President Obama joins a tradition that began long before Air Force One or even the automobile were invented.

“The love affair that the American public has with Yellowstone as a shrine certainly extends to the White House,” says Lee Whittlesey, Yellowstone’s chief historian.

While in office, nine presidents have visited the granddaddy of all modern national parks and most, Whittlesey says, arrived here for vacation purposes. Obama will be number ten, though he stopped by for just a few hours.

“The fact that he arrives with his wife and children underscores the continuing power of Yellowstone as a place to nurture togetherness in nature,” says Whittlesey. “I believe it probably gives most Americans great pleasure knowing that our first family is making its own pilgrimage to this famous place in the still-wild West.”

Unlike the nature-loving Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who in recent summers has showed off his physical vigor by riding horseback shirtless through the forested countryside, Obama’s romp is decidedly different -- a stopover between town hall meetings before continuing on to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

It’s a nostalgic visit for the president. As a youth en route from Hawaii to his mother’s ancestral home in Kansas, he fondly recalls his grandmother making sure they diverted through Yellowstone to watch Old Faithful Geyser erupt and perhaps catch a glimpse of the park’s roadside bears. The memory was important enough that he mentioned it in his best-selling biography.

Dayton Duncan, who together with filmmaker Ken Burns is premiering “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” this fall on PBS, says Yellowstone is a perfect venue, in this time of great social and economic tumult, for pausing to reflect on American values.

After visiting with the president earlier this week, Duncan believes that Barack and Michelle Obama’s desire to give their daughters a taste of “classic America” is sincere. Nature, he says, has a humbling, calming effect on everyone. What’s important with the Obama visit, though, is the symbolism.

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.

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
Follow us on Twitter.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.