Oregonian Chuck Sams sworn in as the first Native American director of the National Park Service

Record the number of annual attendance. Low morale among employees. Billions of dollars in maintenance needs.

These are just a few of the challenges Charles “Chuck” Sams III will face as director of the National Park Service after officially taking over the leadership of an oath-taking ceremony on December 16.

Sams becomes the first Native American to hold this position and the most recent Native to hold a senior position in the federal government since Joe Biden became president. Its boss will be Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, the Home Secretary and the first indigenous person to hold a cabinet-level position.

Sams’ background and citizenship with the Confederate tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation also means that some are optimistic that he will work to improve the way the agency and its hundreds of national parks, historic sites, monuments and areas of recreation works with tribal nations and incorporates their history. and cultural.

“Everyone should have access to the outdoors, no matter where they live, how much money they have or what their history is,” Haaland said in a press release announcing the swearing-in. “Chuck Sams understands the importance of connecting people with nature, and I am thrilled to work with him as the Home Office strives to make our national park system accessible to all Americans.??

Kat Brigham, chair of the Confederate Tribes Board of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said Sams faces a great challenge to meet the current needs of the park service, but that she hopes he will also give priority to improving the agency’s work and coordination with tribal nations. and indigenous peoples.

“He has a huge task,” she said. “But I hope he can eventually help us tell our story about our traditions and culture in the national parks area. “

Sams has 25 years of experience in tribal administration and non-profit conservation and natural resource management. This work has included facilitating land transfers and donations to the parks service, in addition to working on park system lands with volunteers on invasive species conservation and management, among other related roles in public lands. and conservation.

Sams will take over a parks department that hasn’t had a permanent director since 2017.

Charles ‘Chuck’ Sams III is sworn in as Director of the National Park Service by Home Secretary Deb Haaland on Thursday, December 16, 2021. Photo from Deb Haaland’s Twitter page

Before it was confirmed at the end of November, a Senate committee tasked with verifying Sams asked him about his priorities and how he would meet some of the agency’s most pressing needs and the 85 million acres of land. lands it manages. Those priorities, he said, include resolving the agency’s $ 12 billion maintenance delay. In 2020, Congress passed a $ 6.5 billion bill aimed at closing this backlog after years of underinvestment.

But for David Lamfrom, one of the most immediate issues is the state of mind of park service employees. Lamfrom is the vice president of regional programs for the National Park Conservation Association and works on community building and reaching more diverse constituents.

He would like to see a more diverse workforce in park services. But first, he said, the workplace culture and concerns about harassment and gender discrimination need to be addressed, which Sams recognized as a priority.

“I think restoring confidence and morale within the agency will be a top priority,” Lamfrom said.

Morale issues and other staffing issues come against the backdrop of the park service’s growing popularity, with many national parks – such as Zion and Glacier National Parks – having seen record numbers of visitors in recent years.

“He’s going to have to deal with a lot of other issues, like the fact that during the pandemic America fell in love with our national parks again,” Lamfrom said.

In addition to ensuring that people can access the parks while ensuring that they are properly protected in the face of heavy footfall, he said he would like to see the agency engage with groups that don’t flock to the park. park service units and make them more welcoming to all.

“Demographics tell us this herd is not consistent across all communities,” Lamfrom added. “We must therefore ensure that communities that have felt disengaged from parks, or have never felt engaged in parks, can connect and feel welcome. “

Either way, he said, Sams is “absolutely ready for it” and is taking over at an important and potentially “transformational” time.

In the press release, Sams said he was honored to serve and “incredibly proud to work with the dedicated employees of the National Park Service.”

“I have no doubt that together we will be able to expand access to the outside world, protect American public lands and modernize our country’s infrastructure system,” he said. declared.

Organizations like the National Congress of American Indian (NCAI) and other tribal chiefs have lobbied the park service to improve tribal consultation, improve access to important historical and cultural sites or better protect and include them. Indigenous history and culture in the experience of each park. .

Brigham, who has years of experience working with Sams since his time as the tribe administrator, said he had the knowledge and experience to do just that.

“Chuck knows why the land is important to the tribe; we have been taught the need to take care of the earth, so that the earth can take care of us… he knows the importance of family connection to the earth, traditionally, culturally and by taking care of the earth ”, she declared. “These are things we don’t have to educate him about, because we’ve had to try to educate other people.”

For his part, Sams said engagement with Indian Country is a priority, whether through better consultation with tribal nations or the incorporation of traditional indigenous ecological knowledge into agency management decisions or incorporation. of Indigenous history and culture in the experiences of the park.

“As the Park Service’s first Native American Director, Chuck is well positioned to balance recreational uses and stewardship with the needs of our tribal nations to maintain our traditional and ancestral ties to these lands,” said NCAI President , Fawn Sharp, after Sams was appointed in August. .

At the same time, Brigham said she and other tribal leaders were eager to help if he asked.

“We are ready to help because it is going to be a huge task,” she said. “We know it won’t happen overnight. “

This story is co-edited by Underscore.news and Indian country today, a media partnership that covers indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

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