Before he can settle into his job leading one of the largest national park systems in the world, Chuck Sams still needs to pack.
Calling from his Riverside home, in Malheur County, Sams said he has to clear out his soon-to-be-former house as he and his family look to complete the move to Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., some 2,600 miles away from Pendleton.
"We're going from 3,200 square feet to 1,100 square feet," he said. "It's a challenge, but we'll figure it out."
In his first interview with the Oregon Capital Bureau since he was confirmed and sworn in as the director of the National Park Service, Sams summarized the past four months, from the time President Joe Biden announced his nomination to the day U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland swore in Sams at the base of the Lincoln Memorial.
"It's a front-row seat to the U.S. Constitution," he said.
Sams said he already had built up a rapport with several senators through his previous nonprofit work, making it easier for him to build support for his confirmation. At a time when the U.S. Senate is starkly polarized, the only bump to a confirmation vote by unanimous voice vote was the attempt Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, made to delay the vote. But Sams quickly met with Sullivan and allayed his concerns enough to move forward with the vote.
Throughout the entire process, Sams received vocal support from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Sams, an enrolled member of the tribes, worked in tribal government through early March, and the tribes posted a series of congratulatory messages as Sams advanced through his nomination and confirmation. On Christmas Eve, the tribes hosted Sams once more at its annual celebration at the Mission Longhouse, honoring him with a song.
Sams said he was grateful for the tribes' support and started listing mentors such as Antone Minthorn, Les Minthorn and Frenchy Halfmoon, who not only encouraged him to get an education and work his way through tribal government, but to look beyond it.
"I recognize I didn't get to where I am on my own," he said. "I stand on the shoulders of ancestors who came before me."
Working with tribes
While Sams' confirmation won many plaudits around the country, expectations also are high. Many national parks intersect with land where American Indians were removed or excluded to establish the parks, and tribal leaders told High Country News they hope to work with Sams' administration to secure access to those lands.
Sams said the Biden administration already has put in work in that effort, with the president signing an executive order meant to strengthen nation-to-nation relationships between the federal government and tribal nations. Sams added he and Haaland are open to continuing discussions with tribes on co-management agreements.
"Many of these lands are not just (connected to) one particular tribe: There are a number of tribes who have usual and accustomed rights and privileges to the landscape," he said. "So you have to go into these consultations with that understanding, figuring out how tribes can bring traditional ecological knowledge to the table and be able to implement that. The administration has been very clear that they want to use that."
One of the few areas where Sams faced public scrutiny from senators during his confirmation hearing was the issue of the backlog in deferred maintenance built up at the 423 national parks, monuments and sites, with senators asking Sams what he would do about the park infrastructure in their home states.
Sams will have an extra $6.5 billion to use toward park maintenance created through the Great American Outdoors Act passed by Congress in 2020, in addition to additional funds expected through the recently passed infrastructure bill.
"The staff at National Park Service have worked very hard to look at how we even calculate the number of projects we have to do, including the cost," he said. Therefore we're able to really look at it strategically and (ensure) that money is distributed across the 50 states and U.S. territories so that we can tackle this issue."
Out in the field
Another issue Sams inherits is reports of harassment and discrimination within the service's rank and file. A 2017 survey revealed 40% of park service staff reported experiencing harassment during the past year, according to High Country News. The service commissioned a follow-up report to investigate the issue further, called "NPS Voices Report." But in a November letter to Sams, a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility accused the park service of burying the report and encouraged Sams to take action and remove toxic employees from the service.
Sams said the park service has been doing work in the past three years to address the issues raised in the report, but he promised to do more. "I want to be very clear: I hear what the field is saying," he said. "I'm looking forward to going out in the field this next year. The National Park Service staff are working hard to set up a number of opportunities for me to get to both large and small parks so that I can hear directly from the staff, and the rangers themselves, about what's going on and see what we can do to strengthen that. Morale is an extremely important issue."
On Christmas Eve, Sams celebrated his accomplishment with his tribes. In the days that follow, the country will expect him to make good on that accomplishment.
Antonio Sierra is a reporter for the East Oregonian, a Pamplin Media Group news partner.
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