Last December, Charles F. Sams III made history when he became the first Native American to be named director of the National Park Service. He had done his job for him.
The number of visitors to the largest parks in the United States is at a highest point everroad repairs and other infrastructure upgrades include: much needed and climate change poses an increasing threat from coastal erosion, landslides, flooding and other impacts. To address these issues, Congress passed a $9.5 billion package in 2020 known as the… Great American Outdoors Actwhich Mr. Sams will help implement.
It’s a big job, but Mr. Sams has spent a career navigating the complexities of tribal land management. Most recently, he was the executive director of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon, where he now lives. Mr. Sams, who is Cayuse and Walla Walla, has credited his grandfather for instilling 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 the flora and fauna,” he said. “That was an important part of my upbringing.”
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
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What was it like to be sworn in on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?
Home Secretary Deb Haaland and I went to the second landing of the marble staircase and she had me look at my feet so I could recognize I was standing where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Ms. Haaland, who is Native American, said, “We are embodying Dr. King’s dream.” I was very honored.
Secretary Haaland has talked about the importance of accessibility. What were the challenges in making our parks accessible to all Americans?
One problem arises from affordability. In Florida, we partner with the cities of Homestead and Miami and have buses to Biscayne and Everglades so that 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 pleased to be using some of the money from the Great American Outdoors Act to offer upgrades so that people with disabilities can experience the parks in a different way. In Washington, for example, there are now smaller versions of statues in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Visitor Center so those with vision problems can have that tactile experience.
You previously served as executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. How did that experience prepare you for this role?
The reservation was established by treaty in 1855, and my great-great-grandfather Peo Peo Mox Mox, the chieftain of the Walla Walla people, was a signatory to that treaty. He and my ancestors originally thought they had set aside 500,000 acres, but it ended up being 250,000 acres. Through the Allocation Act of 1887 it became a ‘checkerboard reservation’ so we have a mixture of Indian and non-Indian residents in an area where our tribe has legal jurisdiction.
Leading a tribe and being able to work with both tribal and non-tribal members, along with the infrastructure and economic development of a reservation, gave me a pretty good foundation for managing budgets and resources.
Some parks, such as Arches, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite, have recently been introduced timed systems manage with overcrowding† How do you protect these fragile landscapes and keep them open to the public?
Now that more Americans are getting out and about, we want to encourage that. We just need to be better staffed and manage this in the best possible way.
Our workforce is down nearly 15 percent from where we were a decade ago, although attendance has increased by more than 20 percent. For fiscal year 2022, Congress has approved funding for 1,000 new positions. That will help us to have our feet on the ground to tackle this very complex problem.
One way to manage the influx of traffic is through technology. We want people to download the NPS app† Our app helps people plan their time in parks so they can look at the best time of year, or the best time of day to enter the park. They can use that information to navigate their journey.
Are there any parks or regions where you want to see more? visitation?
Although we have some very nice big parks — the most important 63 parks are beautiful, and I would never say anyone should not go see them – I think some people miss some of the smaller parks.
I recently took my family to Prince William Forest Park, which is an hour outside of Washington, DC. The OSS, which was a precursor to the CIA, had used it as a training facility, and they built these little huts during World War II. It was also part of George Washington’s march as he went after the British in Yorktown. I wanted to expose my 8-year-old daughter to that history.
At the Whitman Mission in Washington State, signs: have been recently updated to represent a more nuanced version of historical events. Is there a focus now on incorporating more Indigenous history into the parks?
We were given very clear instructions from President Biden and Secretary Haaland to really lean forward and tell America’s untold stories, even those that can be difficult. So yes, we are going out and working with a great number of scholars and community members who know the rich history of their own country to help us tell a mosaic of stories.
As more tribal nations are invited to administer federal land – like in Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Glacier Bay National Park — what influence does this have on the daily experience of visitors?
In general, it does not affect the daily visitors. But as we work more closely with tribes, either through co-stewardship or co-management, we will see a richer capacity of conservation efforts for native species such as buffalo and wolves. Indigenous peoples have lived in this landscape for at least 10,000 years, if not longer. Over the years, we’ve ignored the people who have lived here the longest, who may benefit from observational knowledge to protect these parks we love so much.