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The National Park Service could soon have its first Native American director

Charles "Chuck" F. Sams III is President Biden's pick to lead the National Parks Service.
Charles "Chuck" F. Sams III is President Biden's pick to lead the National Parks Service.

Charles "Chuck" F. Sams III could soon become the first Native American to head the National Park Service in the agency's 105-year history.

Sams is an enrolled member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, which are part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and has decades of experience in land management. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources meets Tuesday to consider his nomination.

The Biden administration nominated Sams in August, noting his leadership in state and Tribal governments, including as the former national director of the Tribal & Native Lands Program for the Trust for Public Land.

Sams' confirmation would bring change to an agency that hasn't had a permanent Senate-approved director in more than four years. The department has been helmed by a series of acting directors since the last director of the National Park Service retired in 2017.

Sams is a U.S. Navy veteran and lives on the Umatilla Indian Reservation with his wife and their four children. The announcement of Sams' nomination was met with celebration from Native groups as well as Sams' local community.

"It's one of those things that we're going to talk about for generations," Modesta Minthorn, who has known Sams for years, told the East Oregonian. "I can see [myself], talking to grandkids, telling them, 'Be more like that guy.' "

Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, recognized Sams as uniquely qualified to lead the agency.

"As the Park Service's first Native American director, Chuck is well-positioned to balance recreational uses and stewardship with our Tribal Nations' needs to maintain our traditional and ancestral ties to these lands," Sharp said.

As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the next Park Service director will be faced with a backlog of maintenance and critical infrastructure projects at national parks, as well as the consequences of record-breaking crowds during the pandemic.

The National Park System covers more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior, which is led by Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna. She made history when she was confirmed as the first Native American cabinet secretary in March.

Haaland and Sams' nominations come as more Indigenous people are gaining leadership positions nationwide and as some states are working with Tribal leaders to use Native eco-stewardship practices such as traditional burns to manage wildfire threats.

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