NPS finally has a director — with many promises to fulfill

By Rob Hotakainen | 11/19/2021 01:40 PM EST

Charles “Chuck” Sams III testifying during his confirmation hearing earlier this fall. Francis Chung/E&E News

After going nearly five years without a Senate-confirmed director, the National Park Service finally has a new boss.

Charles “Chuck” Sams III, who will become the first Native American to lead the agency, will begin his new job with high expectations and a long list of promises to fulfill.

Before the Senate approved his nomination last night, Sams had to meet demands made by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who had objected to a quick voice vote earlier in the day (E&E Daily, Nov. 19).

Sullivan complained that the federal government, including the park service, had been too heavy-handed in his state, but he said he was satisfied after Sams promised to address his concerns.

"These are important commitments Mr. Sams has made, and I have no further objections to this nominee’s confirmation," said Sullivan.

After getting nominated for the job by President Biden in August, Sams found himself pledging to deal with the concerns of many senators, many of them dealing with local issues.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month, he told Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) that he would work to make more housing available for NPS employees in Montana.

“I know in your state people are having to travel as much as 50 miles away just to get to their service duty station,” Sams told Daines.

He told Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) that he’d meet with leaders of the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona to discuss their concerns about how uranium mining around Grand Canyon National Park could affect their water supply.

“I would look forward to meeting with them and discussing this issue,” Sams told Kelly.

He told Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) that he would work to make sure cattle can’t stray into the Valles Caldera National Preserve, where they’re damaging the meadows.

“I am committed to figuring a way to ensure that there are no trespass issues,” Sams told Heinrich.

He told Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that he was “very committed” to examining how funding decisions are made for projects under the Great American Outdoors Act and that he’d work to ensure continued access to NPS units in Utah.

“We understand that issue,” Sams told Lee.

And he told Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), the chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, that he’d conduct an analysis of staffing needs at the park service and fight to get the necessary funding to hire more employees.

When King expressed concern that Sams had never worked for the park service, Sams said he would work with experienced agency professionals to assist in his management responsibilities (Greenwire, Aug. 19).

“I would definitely commit to that,” he said.

‘We are relieved’

Park advocates this morning cheered the vote, happy that the agency will end its longest streak in history without a permanent director.

“We are relieved to finally have a Senate-confirmed director of the National Park Service in place,” said Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, predicting that Sams will be a leader whom NPS employees “admire and respect.”

At his confirmation hearing, Sams promised to improve staff morale, reduce the number of deferred maintenance projects and have a “zero tolerance” approach to any employee harassment (E&E Daily, Oct. 20).

“Chuck is going to have a big job cut out for him,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who led the push last night to get Sams confirmed by a voice vote.

Among other things, Wyden said Sams will now have to tackle the effects of climate change, park overcrowding, a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, and, “unfortunately, a workforce culture fraught with gender discrimination and harassment.”

Sams, a former administrator of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, will become the 19th NPS director, succeeding Jonathan Jarvis, who was confirmed by the Senate in 2009 and held the job for eight years during the Obama administration.

Since then, the position has been filled by five acting directors — four under former President Trump, and one under Biden.

Athan Manuel, director of Sierra Club’s lands protection program, called the vote “a historic day for the National Park Service.”

"This confirmation comes just in time, as public lands and waters play a key role in taking on the overlapping challenges of the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis and nature equity crisis,” he said.