The White House has announced that the First Family will be in national parks next weekend: Yellowstone on August 15 and the Grand Canyon on August 16. Obama will also hold a town hall meeting in Bozeman, Montana on August 14, and may address the Veterans of Foreign Wars' annual convention in Phoenix...hence, a special weekend edition of Hike On!
This White House does everything for reasons, so there's lots of political angles to play up. It's also Sasha and Malia's first trip to the two parks.
The symbolism of scheduling a town hall on health care reform in the home state of Max "I'm making great progress negotiating health care reform with this Elephant (Rock):" Baucus has not been lost on astute Kossacks. The semi-traditional visit to the VFW convention likewise hardly needs explaining.
But there's more at work here. Robert Gibbs tells reporters that the trip is designed to draw attention, and lure tourists, to the national park system. The National Park Service expects Ken Burns' upcoming national park documentary (airing on PBS in the fall) to do for national parks what he's done for baseball and the Civil War. In the meantime, the Obamas are doing their part. They might have been inspired by a New York Times article fretting about declining attendance, from a peak of 287 million visits/year in 1987 to 274 million visits/year in 2008. The Times even suggested "Michelle's Next Challenge," a la her kitchen garden: get kids and other unlikely people interested in putting down the TV/laptop/video game/ipod screens, growing and eating healthy vegetables, and developing other healthy habits.
Attendance at national parks has been declining...or has it? Much as I agree with the sentiment of encouraging people to visit their parks, I'm not sure whether fretting about declining attendance is reality-based. Every recession-weary family knows that a camping trip is a relatively inexpensive way to vacation, so common sense alone suggests that attendance would be up this year. A quick spot check of official NPS statistics for July 2009 compared with the previous year shows that Arches' visitors are up 8.6%; Carlsbad Caverns' visitors up nearly 10%; Glacier's visitors are up 14.8%; and Yellowstone's visitors up 10.3%. Only the Grand Canyon has reported a very slight dip in attendance. Informal tallies from various parks show attendance way up on the free weekends.
When visits are up, Professional Fretters fret that the parks are being loved to death; when they're down, the same people beg the style-setting First Family to visit. Hmmm...maybe the Professional Fretters can find something better to fret about? Like why Max Baucus is negotiating with "Elephant Rock"?
In the meantime, the Obamas will be doing their part to publicize the wonders of the national park system. August 15-16 is the last of three weekends this summer in which entrance fees at national parks are waived. That's right, if you wanted to visit the Grand Canyon but were deterred by a $25 entrance fee, fret no longer! The prior two weekends were June 19-20 and July 17-18. I only wish that the First Family could hike past Old Faithful and into the Upper Basin, or anywhere else in the park; 90% of Yellowstone's tourists never venture more than 1/4 mile from the road.
I hope that seeing Bright Angel Point will remind Obama that the stimulus fund has only scratched the surface of the park service's backlog. And I hope that Malia and Sasha have a great time, and that other children (and their parents) will be inspired to get away from the screens and into the awesomeness of our national parks. Hike on!