Obama extols US national parks as White House works to cement environmental legacy

US President Barack Obama speaks about the National Park Service at Yosemite National Park, California.
US President Barack Obama speaks about the National Park Service at Yosemite National Park, California. PHOTO: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama speaks while celebrating the 100th anniversary of the US National Parks system at Yosemite National Park, California.
US President Barack Obama speaks while celebrating the 100th anniversary of the US National Parks system at Yosemite National Park, California.PHOTO: AFP
US President Barack Obama arrives with US First Lady Michelle Obama to speak to children about the "Every Kid in the Park" initiative in Yosemite National Park.
US President Barack Obama arrives with US First Lady Michelle Obama to speak to children about the "Every Kid in the Park" initiative in Yosemite National Park. PHOTO: AFP
US First Lady Michelle Obama (left) and US President Barack Obama hand out National Park passes to children for the "Every Kid in the Park" initiative in Yosemite National Park, California.
US First Lady Michelle Obama (left) and US President Barack Obama hand out National Park passes to children for the "Every Kid in the Park" initiative in Yosemite National Park, California. PHOTO: AFP
US First Lady Michelle Obama and US President Barack Obama sit with children after speaking to them about the "Every Kid in the Park"  on June 18 in Yosemite National Park, California.
US First Lady Michelle Obama and US President Barack Obama sit with children after speaking to them about the "Every Kid in the Park" on June 18 in Yosemite National Park, California.PHOTO: AFP

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK (Reuters) - The moon was just rising over Half Dome, the setting sun reflected off its sheer granite face, as President Barack Obama and his family landed by helicopter in a meadow, the knee-high grass waving wildly while campers cheered.

It was a picture-perfect moment designed to resonate on social media as the White House works to cement Obama's environmental legacy as the Jan 20, 2017 end to his time in office draws nearer.

Obama brought his family late on Friday to Yosemite, the nation's oldest national park, on a working vacation. The trip was aimed at celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service, making the case for curbing climate change and encouraging more investment in conservation.

"You can't capture this on an iPad or a flat screen or even an oil painting. You've got to come here and breathe it in yourself," Obama said in a brief speech on Saturday at Sentinel Bridge, as the 2,425 feet of the Yosemite Falls cascaded behind him.

Also along for the ride: National Geographic, working with Facebook to shoot an Oculus virtual reality video and taping an interview with Obama to be aired in August.

The White House said Obama would be the first sitting president to take part in a "virtual reality experience."

Later on Saturday, there were more camera-ready moments. Obama handed out free passes to national parks to kids sitting cross-legged on a trail, comically growling at them when they shouted "Go away bears!" as a park ranger had taught them.

The passes - available to any fourth-grade student - are part of the "Every kid in a park" promotion to get more families to visit national parks.

Obama recalled the first time he saw moose and deer in a national park at age 11. "That changes you. You're not the same after that," he said. "We've got kids all across this country who never see a park. We've got to change that," Obama said.

Obama highlighted his plan to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions and an international deal spurring other countries to take similar steps. He said climate change is putting national parks at risk.

"That's not the legacy I think any of us want to leave," he said.

Obama has added 20 sites to the national park system during his presidency and protected more than 265 million acres of public lands and waters from development - more than any other president. "We've got to do a lot more," he said.