Oregon tribal leader in line to lead national parks
A politically polarized Senate has set Oct. 19 for a hearing on the nomination of former Oregon tribal leader Chuck Sams as the next director of the National Parks Service.
Sams, the longtime administrator of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, will appear before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee.
Sams is the latest in a series of nominations by President Joe Biden that is part of an effort to restore environmental policies rolled back under President Donald Trump.
If confirmed, Sams would be the first Native American to serve as National Parks Service director. He is Cayuse, Walla Walla, Cocopah and Yankton Sioux. He would also be a rare outsider to head the service founded in 1916. The director manages the 63 national parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Crater Lake.
The agency's 21,000 employees manage 423 sites making up 85 million acres in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories.
The hearing will likely include questions about Biden's recent order to reverse Trump's decision to reduce the size of protected areas of national monuments in Utah and New England. The order is meant to stop "a pendulum that swings back and forth depending on who is in public office," Biden said.
Trump did not fill the National Parks Service director position when it became vacant in January 2017, instead naming acting directors. The move skirted any Senate involvement with who would fill the position or questions on National Parks Service policies. Under the U.S. Constitution, key presidential appointments require the "advice and consent" of the Senate.
After stepping down from his leadership role at the Umatilla reservation, Sams was selected early this year by Gov. Kate Brown as a representative of Oregon on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
"Chuck Sams is among Oregon's finest, and I can't think of a better person for the important role of National Park Service director," Brown wrote to Biden. "I have worked closely with Chuck for many years, and have witnessed firsthand his unparalleled devotion and service to his Tribe, our state, and our nation."
At the Oct. 19 hearing, Sams will be introduced by Wyden, a member of the committee. Sams will make an opening statement and then answer questions from the10 Democrats and 10 Republicans on the committee.
If prior hearings before the committee are any indication, Sams can expect sharp questions about his plans for the service and his views on issues from global warming to the annexation of land by the federal government.
Biden has asked for up to $3.5 billion for the National Parks Service, saying outdated facilities, roads and staffing levels could permanently endanger the natural areas.
The committee hearings have been the source of partisan fireworks earlier this year. The nominations of New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior, and National Wildlife Foundation Executive Tracy Stone-Manning as director of the Bureau of Land Management, have been contentious.
The Senate confirmed Haaland in the spring. Stone-Manning's nomination is in the final stage debate in the full Senate.
With most of the Biden policy issues already hashed out by senators in questioning Haaland, the confirmation of Sams is unlikely to generate as much political heat.
A key sign that Sams' nomination is expected to unlikely to be contentious is that he will be one of three Biden nominees to appear on Oct. 19. The committee will also take up the nominations of Willie L. Phillips Jr. to be a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Brad J. Crabtree to be an assistant secretary of energy.
Republicans have focused on the possible expansion of the federal role in land use in questions out to Haaland and Stone-Manning. But it is some liberals on the panel who have expressed reservations about Sams.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is counted among the 50 votes to give the party parity with Republicans, sits on the committee that will question Sams. King publicly chastised Biden in May for taking too long to nominate a new NPS director.
When Biden nominated Sams in August, King's reaction was mixed. In an interview with Energy & Environment, a publication affiliated with Politico magazine, King said he was concerned about Sams having had no previous experience with NPS. Directors have often been senior NPS managers promoted to the top job.
"I'm reserving judgment," King said.
But after reassurances from experts and advocates who had worked with Sams on public land trust and conservation issues, King said he could see an upside to Sams different set of experiences.
"I've heard from people that know him that he's very capable and would bring fresh eyes and new perspective to the department, to the service," King said.
The hearing is at 10 a.m. Oct. 19, in room 366 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The hearing will be livestreamed on the U.S. Senate website, www.senate.gov.
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