The commander-in-chief and his family spent less than five minutes in Merced County on Friday as they changed aircraft en route to a vacation in Yosemite National Park.
But that was still enough to cheer many onlookers, some carrying cameras and small American flags, who had gathered to catch a glimpse of President Barack Obama.
“It’s not often you get to be that close to a sitting president,” said Jeff Katz, a 32-year-old Bay Area resident who was in Atwater visiting his girlfriend.
Katz was among scores of people who gathered at the former Castle Air Force Base to see the giant Boeing 747 known as Air Force One land shortly before 7 p.m. A crowd of journalists and onlookers, many of whom had waited about two hours for the arrival, were kept about 150 yards away.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, descended the stairway and then chatted for about three minutes with Rep. Jim Costa, Merced County Supervisor Hub Walsh, and Claudia Gonzales, chairwoman of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians.
Costa said, I “told him, the first lady and the children, he was going to see one of America’s greatest parks.”
Dressed casually in jeans and short sleeves, Obama and his wife then walked to the Marine One helicopter, which carried the couple and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, east toward the Sierra.
Costa said the president said he’ll talk Saturday about the importance of the nation’s parks and the need to encourage more people of color to visit.
“He said he’s really anxious to learn about the role of Buffalo Soldiers,” Costa said, adding that the black Civil War-era soldiers were the original park stewards.
Obama’s brief visit to Merced County was the second of his presidency. In 2014, Obama met with farmers to discuss the state’s crippling drought. It was an issue that Costa brought to mind again.
“I told him we still got to fix a broken water system,” the congressman told the Sun-Star.
Obama and his family plan to stay at a suite in the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee, the luxury establishment that has been renamed the Majestic Yosemite Hotel due to a trademark battle with the park’s former concessionaire.
Yosemite is among the national parks that have looked into efforts to encourage more people from minority groups to visit.
According to a study conducted in summer 2009, only 11 percent of visitors identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, which are ethnic designations that can be of any race. The study said only 1 percent of respondents identified as African American or black; 1 percent as American Indian or Alaskan native; 1 percent as native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; and 11 percent as Asian.
The nation’s demographic makeup is more than 77 percent white, according to 2014 Census figures. More than 17 percent of people in the United States identify as Hispanic, more than 13 percent as black, and about 5.4 percent as Asian.
“This suggests an alarming disconnect,” Glenn Nelson, whose Trail Posse encourages diversity in the outdoors, wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times. Given that Census estimates predict the nation will have a nonwhite majority by 2044, he wrote, “if that new majority has little or no relationship with the outdoors, then the future of the nation’s parks, and the retail and nonprofit ecosystem that surrounds them, will be in trouble.”
The first family arrived at the Atwater airfield after visiting New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns earlier in the day before heading to Yosemite for Father’s Day weekend.
Obama’s trip marks the first visit to Yosemite by a sitting president since John F. Kennedy in 1962, who also used the tarmac at Castle as a stopping point.
The visit comes as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial. Last year, the Obama administration launched the Every Kid in a Park program, which allows fourth-graders to download a pass that gives them and their families free access to all federally managed lands and waters – including national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and marine sanctuaries.
Thousands of tourists will also enjoy the park with them, almost all of whom made reservations months ago.
The visit is meant to highlight national parks and their economic benefits to surrounding communities, according to White House officials. California has 27 parks that attract 38.4 million visitors a year. That works out to about $1.8 billion in visitor spending in local economies, according to officials.
With or without Obama, Mariposa Chamber of Commerce CEO Dane Carlson said, it will be a madhouse. “Every weekend in the summer is always busy,” he said. “Everything’s sold out. If you haven’t planned ahead, you are very unlikely to find a place.”
Still, Obama’s visit will likely kick everything up a notch, from the inconveniences to the tourists with an unexpected tale to tell about their weekend.
White House officials are encouraging people to get into the park before 8 a.m. If they are unable, they should wait until after 6 p.m. to avoid traffic congestion. All camping permits are being honored.
The hope is to keep the disruptions of the president’s visit to a minimum, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said during a Thursday conference call.
Jewell said there are three priorities for the Obama administration: make public lands relevant to all Americans, think big on conservation, and continue to invest in public lands because they return important economic benefits to the communities that surround them.
The Fresno Bee’s John Ellis contributed to this report.