On Friday, US President Barack Obama and his family visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, which features more than 100 caves, three of them open to the public.

The Obamas visited the Big Room, a large cave chamber located 230m underground and filled with stalactites and stalagmites. It is also a sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of bats.

“Spectacular,” Obama said.

“How cool is this?” he said to the press in the dark, damp alien landscape.

The Big Room is the best known of the labyrinth of limestone caves where the only sound for many visitors is the drip-dripping of water from stalactites. Actor Will Rogers once called this place the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it.”

The subterranean adventure was the first stop on a working vacation during which Obama will spend some time with his family while making the case for more spending on conservation and curbing climate change.

It was just like any other family holiday, except for the entourage of Secret Service agents, aides and press who follow Obama wherever he goes. They all had to descend 230m on elevators in eight shifts.

On Saturday, after flying over waterfalls and granite peaks, the first family travelled to the famous Yosemite National Park in California, known for its giant redwood trees.

President Barack Obama speaks  about the National Park Service at Yosemite. Photos: Reuters

President Barack Obama speaks about the National Park Service at Yosemite. Photos: Reuters

At one point, he and first lady Michelle stopped to chat with some kids at a park facility under bright, sunny skies. Michelle asked them what they would do to scare away bears. As the kids started yelling, the president said: “Oh, I would get out of here!”

The Obamas then sat on the ground for a photo with the group, with the president making sure all kids were smiling.

“Everybody say cheese,” he said. “Everybody say ‘national parks.’ Everybody say ‘happy birthday,’” he added, mentioning a birthday girl in the group.

Protecting nature

The president is helping celebrate the centennial of the nation’s vaunted national parks while highlighting his plan to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions, which he sees as part of the legacy of his time in office.

The White House has said the changing climate evidenced by droughts, increased flooding and wildfires and stronger storms has put national parks at risk.

Obama is the first sitting president since John F. Kennedy (back in 1962) to visit Yosemite.

Obama has made protecting nature areas one of the hallmarks of his presidency.

Tourists wait at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, California as President Obama and his family hike in the area. Photo: Reuters

Tourists wait at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, California as President Obama and his family hike in the area. Photo: Reuters

Since 2009, he has set aside as protected areas more than 100mil hectares of public lands and waters across the country, more than any previous President. A large part of that involves a marine sanctuary around islands and atolls in the Pacific.

In doing so, he relied on the Antiquities Act, a law signed in 1906 by then president Theodore Roosevelt, a fervent advocate of preserving the country’s natural resources.

Obama has made the fight against climate change a priority of his two terms in office. With complaints of systematic obstructionism by the Republican-controlled Congress, the Antiquities Act has been key to circumventing his opponents on environmental issues.

It allows the president to move swiftly to preserve threatened areas, which can be transformed into national parks if Congress gives the go ahead.

US First Lady Michelle Obama and US President Barack Obama sit with children after speaking to them about the Every Kid in the Park initiative while celebrating the 100th year of US National Parks at 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 initiative while celebrating the 100th year of US National Parks at Yosemite National Park, California. Photo: AFP

Before Obama, 16 presidents had used the measures. Only three (all of them Republicans), did not do so: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush.

Before leaving office in January, Obama could sign off on other protection projects awaiting his signature, such as an expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea marine reserve in Hawaii, declared a decade ago by George W. Bush and home to many endangered species.

Parks bring income

Over the years, such presidential designations have often triggered controversies because they end up prohibiting exploration and development of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal on the protected lands or in protected waters.

Some lawmakers question the legal foundation of the Antiquities Act and what they see as a carte blanche for the president.

These lawmakers complain of poor management of federal lands and stymied economic development. They have tried in vain several times to have the law erased.

But the national park system remains hugely popular in the United States. The 400-odd parks received a record 307 million visitors last year. The system turns 100 on August 25.

President Obama at Yosemite National Park, California. Photo: Reuters

President Obama at Yosemite National Park, California. Photo: Reuters

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said national park visits in 2016 were on pace to beat last year’s record. Tourists contributed an estimated US$300bil (RM1.22 trillion) to the economy, supporting about two million jobs, she told reporters.

She wants Congress to remember those numbers as it considers investments in public lands.

“We have more work to do to preserve our lands and culture and our history. We’re not done yet,” Obama said in a speech against the spectacular backdrop of Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in the park.

“For this centennial, we’re asking all Americans to find your park so everyone, including those from underserved communities, can experience these wonders.” – Agencies