4th graders help President Obama up at Yosemite National Park

With Yosemite Falls in the background, President Obama told an audience Saturday that climate change is already impacting America’s national parks.

“Make no mistake, climate change is no longer just a threat — it’s already a reality,” he said from a lectern near Sentinel Bridge in Yosemite National Park.

The first family’s trip to the nation’s fourth most-visited park – with about 4 million visitors a year – comes as the National Park Service is approaching its 100th anniversary in August. During the visit, the first by a president since John F. Kennedy’s in 1962, Obama urged Americans to visit the parks and called for increased action to preserve the nation’s wildlands for future generations.

Referring to a painting of Vernal Fall and Half Dome — two of Yosemite’s iconic features — that hangs in the West Wing of the White House, Obama said jokingly that the park “looks slightly better in person.”

After taking in the surroundings with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia, the president said: “Just look at this scene. … You’ve got to come here and breathe it in yourself.”

He spoke in Yosemite after a visit to another of the National Park System’s 400-plus sites: Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

Obama on Saturday pointed to some of the environmental gains made during his time in office, including protection of 265 million acres of public lands and waters, more than any previous administration. He also touted the establishment of new monuments, including one to labor leader Cesar Chavez in Kern County.

“We’ve designated new monuments and historic sites that better reflect the story of all our people,” Obama said.

Three Southern California sites were designated national monuments this year: Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails and Castle Mountains. Those areas, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, have helped connect hundreds of miles of the region’s protected wildlands.

As a green meadow waved gently in the breeze behind him, Obama marveled at Yosemite’s natural beauty even as he warned of the imminent threats posed by climate change.

He pointed to the drying of Yosemite’s grasslands and the shrinking of its largest glacier, which once stretched a mile wide. He cited shifts in the historic bird ranges and said alpine mammals such as pikas had been forced farther up slopes to escape rising temperatures.

“Fires are raging across the west right now … all while it’s still really early in the season,” he said, pointing out blazes in California and several other states.

The future could be bleak for many sites in the national parks system, he said: “No more glaciers at Glacier National Park. No more Joshua trees at Joshua Tree National Park.”

Rising sea levels could threaten natural areas such as Everglades National Park in Florida, as well as such man-made icons as the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island, he added.

Earlier in the day, in jeans and and rolled-up sleeves, Obama took photos with young visitors in Yosemite, chatting with them about the importance of the national parks. He highlighted the “Every Kid in a Park” program, which offers free passes to fourth-graders and their families for all federally managed lands and waters.

During his remarks, Obama recalled visiting Yellowstone National Park at 11 for the first time, awestruck by the sight of a moose in a lake, a field full of deer, a mother bear and her cub.

“That changes you,” he said. “You’re not the same after that. And I want to make sure every kid feels that.”

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