Senate confirms first Native American to direct park service

Charles Sams III will assume helm of an agency that has not had a Senate-confirmed director since Obama administration

Charles Sams III, shown last month, will face many challenges at the National Park Service, including park overcrowding, sexual harassment of employees and a backlog in repairs.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Charles Sams III, shown last month, will face many challenges at the National Park Service, including park overcrowding, sexual harassment of employees and a backlog in repairs. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 19, 2021 at 1:47pm

The Senate late Thursday confirmed Charles Sams III to lead the National Park Service, making him the first Senate-approved director since the Obama administration and the first Native American to hold the post.

While House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was criticizing congressional Democrats' roughly $2 trillion climate-and-social-spending bill in an hourslong floor speech, the Senate approved Sams’ nomination by voice vote.

Representatives of the National Park Service did not respond when asked when Sams would be sworn in, and a spokeswoman at the Interior Department, the service’s parent agency, declined to comment on the record.

An enrolled member of the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, Sams, who goes by Chuck, breezed through the confirmation process, drawing little if any skepticism from members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, though the problems before the 106-year-old agency do not augur an easy path ahead.

Facing challenges including park overcrowding, sexual harassment of employees, a backlog of about $12 billion in repairs and the impact of climate change on NPS sites, Sams will assume the helm of a department that has not had a Senate-confirmed director since the Obama administration.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, pushed President Joe Biden to pick Sams for the park service job  before he was nominated. Brown later appointed Sams to a seat on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an interstate agency Congress created to oversee wildlife and water issues in the Columbia River Basin.

The National Park Service languished under the presidency of Donald Trump, who never nominated a director, relying instead on a series of acting chiefs.

“Never in the 104-year history of the NPS has the agency gone through an entire administration without a permanent director,” Paul Anderson, president of the Association of National Park Rangers, wrote last year to the Biden transition team.  “A vacuum in leadership at best causes stagnation within an organization and at worst a decline in the ability to achieve the mission."

At his confirmation hearing in October, Sams said supporting the agency’s staff is critical.

“The National Park Service cannot achieve its mission without a well-supported workforce,” Sams said. “Staffing, housing and other issues are impacting morale and deserve active attention.”

He also singled out sexual harassment as a problem in need of attention, saying, “I'm also very aware of the concerns about the harassment of National Park Service employees, particularly women, and I have always had a zero tolerance approach in harassment and will bring this to the position.”

A federal survey from 2017 found more than one-third of all park staff surveyed had experienced sexual harassment monthly or more frequently.

Overcrowding

Visitors surged to National Park Service sites during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic — the agency manages 423 sites total, from large parks like Yellowstone and the Everglades, to historic locations, such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Stonewall Inn in New York City — though much of the inundation fell on the name-brand parks, like Grand Teton in Wyoming.

Michael T. Reynolds, a regional director of the agency overseeing Western states, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources National Parks Subcommittee in July it is “becoming increasingly challenging in our most popular parks” to make sure visitors have “enjoyable experiences.”

“About half of all our recreation visits are occurring at only the top 23 most-visited parks, with significant congestion conditions concentrated in the most popular 12 to 15 destination parks,” Reynolds said.

Sams will also be tasked with implementing the funding that the 116th Congress approved in a bipartisan public lands bill, which authorized spending up to $1.9 billion a year in maintenance for the parks.

He said at his confirmation hearing he would look to fix park elements in the worst shape.

“Those areas that are in most critical need are seeing that funding very early on, because we have to stop that deterioration, and I want to make sure that those investments are very clear and open to the public,” Sams said.

With a background in conservation management, Sams is a U.S. Navy veteran and has worked in state and tribal positions. This is his first park service post. 

Time he spent in the 1990s as a volunteer at Grant’s Tomb in New York got him thinking about the role of the agency, he said.

“That's really what inspired me to think of, you know, how does the National Park Service work?” he said. “What does it protect and preserve? And how do we get people in there? My own experience is when you walk in the footsteps of your fellow Americans in these places, these hallowed halls, these hallowed lands, you get that invigoration.”