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Senate confirms first Native American to lead National Park Service

Charles Sams III will take the helm of an agency that has seen significant turnover at the top in recent years.
Image: Charles F Sams
Charles F. Sams III, nominee to be director of the National Park Service, testifies during his Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on Oct. 19, 2021.Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP file

The Senate this week confirmed Charles “Chuck” Sams III as head of the National Park Service, making him the first Native American to lead the agency.

Sams was confirmed late Thursday evening by voice vote, indicating unanimous support. President Joe Biden nominated him for the post in August.

Sams is Cayuse and Walla Walla and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, with ties to the Yankton Sioux and Cocopah Peoples. He served in the Navy as an intelligence specialist before working in natural resource and conservation management.

“My personal history is deeply interwoven with the fabric of our shared American history,” he said during his Senate confirmation hearing in October.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, has said Sams would be an “incredible asset” to the agency.

The Biden administration has prioritized the protection and restoration of Native lands. On Friday, Haaland ordered the removal of “squaw,” a derogatory term, from the more than 650 federal sites on which it appears. Earlier this week, Biden proposed a 20-year ban on oil and gas drilling within a 10-mile radius of a national park that holds historical significance to Native American tribes. In October, Biden restored environmental protections to national monuments in Utah and New England that had been stripped by the Trump administration.

The national park system was established in 1916. In recent years, the agency has had significant turnover at the director level. After Jonathan Jarvis served from 2009 until January 2017, former President Trump had four acting directors — all of whom had brief tenures. Shawn Benge has been the acting director under Biden since January.

The National Park Service has a budget of about $3 billion and around 20,000 employees. The agency oversees 423 sites covering 85 million acres.

Sams told senators last month that he plans to bring more Native American voices to the decision-making table and make areas more accessible to the public.

“The National Park Service is a very special agency with a timeless mission: to preserve resources and to inspire current and future generations. I am excited to lead that mission,” he said.