Meet Charles F. Sams III, the new director of the NPS


Last December, Charles F. Sams III made history by becoming the first Native American to be appointed director of the National Park Service. He had his work cut out for him.

Visitor numbers to America’s largest parks have never been higher, road repairs and other infrastructure improvements are badly needed, and climate change is a growing threat through coastal erosion, landslides, floods and other effects. To address these issues, Congress in 2020 passed a $9.5 billion package known as the Great American Outdoors Act, which Mr. Sams will help implement.

It’s a big job, but Mr. Sams has spent his career navigating the complexities of tribal land management. Most recently, he served as executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon, where he now lives. Mr. Sams, who is Cayuse and Walla Walla, credited his grandfather with instilling in him a responsibility for native plants and wildlife.

“He would ask me questions from time to time, to paint a picture of our relationship, as humans, with flora and fauna,” he said. “It was an important part of my upbringing growing up.”

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and I went to the second landing of the marble steps, and she made me look at my feet, so I could recognize that I was standing where Dr. King gave his “J I have a dream”. Ms. Haaland, who is Native American, said: “We are the dream of Dr. King.” I was very honoured.

One problem stems from affordability. In Florida, we’ve partnered with the cities of Homestead and Miami and operate buses to Biscayne and Everglades so low-income families can access the park system.

Many parks were built in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and did not have ADA accessibility. We are very happy to use some of the Great American Outdoors Act money to provide upgrades so people with disabilities can experience the parks in a different way. For example, in Washington, there are now smaller versions of statues at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Visitor Center, so people with sight issues can have that tactile experience.

The reservation was established by treaty in 1855, and my great-great-great-grandfather Peo Peo Mox Mox, the chief of the Walla Walla people, was one of the signatories to that treaty. He and my ancestors originally thought they had set aside 500,000 acres, but it ended up being 250,000 acres. Due to the Allotments Act of 1887 it became a ‘checkerboard reservation’ so we have a mix of Indian and non-Indian residents in an area in which our tribe has legal jurisdiction.

Leading a tribe and being able to work with tribal and non-tribal members, as well as infrastructure and economic development on a reservation, gave me a pretty good grounding in how to manage budgets and resources.

As more and more Americans get out and recreate, we want to encourage that. We just need to be better staffed and to manage this in the best way possible.

Our headcount is down nearly 15% from ten years ago, even though visits have increased by more than 20%. For fiscal year 2022, Congress authorized funding for 1,000 new positions. This will help us have the boots on the ground to handle this very complex problem.

Technology is a way to manage the influx of traffic. We would like people to download the NPS app. Our app helps people plan their time in parks, so they can see the best time of year or the best time of day to enter the park. They can use this information to help them navigate their journey.

Although we have some really nice big parks — the 63 main parks are great, and I would never say don’t go see them — I think some people miss out on some of the smaller parks.

I recently took my family to Prince William Forest Park, which is an hour from Washington, D.C. The OSS, which was a precursor to the CIA, used it as a training facility, and they built these little cabins during World War II. . It was also part of George Washington’s march when he was pursuing the British at Yorktown. I wanted to expose my 8 year old daughter to this story.

We have had very clear instructions from President Biden and Secretary Haaland to really lean in and tell America’s untold stories, even those that may be difficult. So yes, we go out there and work with a host of scholars and community members who know the rich history of their own lands, to help us tell a mosaic of stories.

In general, this will not affect daily visitors. But as we work more closely with tribes, whether through co-stewardship or co-management, we’re going to see a richer capacity for conservation efforts for native species like buffaloes and wolves. . Native people have lived in this landscape for at least 10,000 years, if not longer. Over the years we have ignored the people who have lived here the longest, who may have the advantage of sighting knowledge to help protect these parks we love so much.


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