By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is taking his family to two national parks this weekend on a working vacation where he will spend some time with his teenaged daughters while making the case for more spending on conservation and curbing climate change.
The Obamas will venture into the ancient labyrinth of caverns beneath the desert at Carlsbad, New Mexico, on Friday before flying west to the Sierra Nevada mountains and Yosemite, the country's oldest national park and one of its most popular landmarks.
The president will help celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, and he is also expected to talk about his plan to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions. He sees this as part of the legacy of his time in office.
"Stronger storms, worsening droughts, increased flooding, and longer wildfire seasons are putting our national parks and natural treasures at risk," said Christy Goldfuss, a White House adviser on environmental issues.
Warming temperatures in Yosemite have pushed the pika, "a kind of rodent that looks like a cross between a rabbit and chipmunk," to the brink of extinction, she said.
Obama's trip comes as visits to national parks surge due in part to lower gasoline prices.
During his presidency, which comes to an end on Jan. 20, 2017, Obama has added 20 sites to the national park system, 10 which were approved by Congress. He used his own authority for the others.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said national park visits in 2016 were on pace to beat last year's record of 307 million. All those tourists contributed an estimated $300 billion to the economy, supporting about 2 million jobs, she told reporters.
Those are numbers she wants Congress to remember as it considers investments in public lands and addresses an $11.5 billion backlog in parks maintenance projects.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who is the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has been critical of investments given the backlog.
"To me, there is little point in conserving lands or allowing the federal government to acquire even more land if we are not going to take proper care of them," Murkowski told a hearing late last year.
But Jewell said it was important to forge ahead. "Our nation's public treasures come up and are available when they're available, not necessarily when we have incremental funding for them," she said.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Toni Reinhold)