19 Dec National Park Service Director Charles Sams III
The protection of public land requires the broad ranging vision and leadership of federal service professionals at the highest levels. As the 19th Director of the National Park Service Charles F. Sams III is guiding the management of a complexed agency that oversees the protection of 63 National Parks and more than 420 individual monuments, battlefields, lakeshores and grasslands. A member of the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indians, Sams is the first Native American to serve as the administrator of the memorial sites that preserve our natural history and enduring national heritage.
After a long career in the U.S. Navy in times of both war and peace as well as the creation of career opportunities for aspiring stewards of the natural environment, Sams now dedicates his commitment to public service by encouraging the next generation of National Park Rangers. By building a corps of passionate interpreters to effectively tell a more comprehensive story of our culture as a united people, he’s a helping to pave a diverse and inclusive pathway of preservation well into the future.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
“You’re never going to meet a more passionate group of people who are dedicated to mission than the National Park Service Rangers and their staffs out there,” Sams said. “And what they really need is a leader who will advocate for them to ensure they have the funding so they can can go about doing the preservation of flora and fauna and telling America stories.”
In recent months since the passage by Congress of the Great American Outdoors Act, also known as GAOA, there are new opportunities to affirm the priorities of natural resource and heritage protection through the National Park Service. By permanently providing financial resources for the Land And Water Conservation Fund, the federal government is poised to make profound investments in the people and places that define our identity as a nation. Now that he’s coming to the end of his first year on the job, I had the chance speak to Sams and have him reflect upon his tenure so far as well as the role that the NPS can play in the shaping our way forward.
I’m James Edward Mills. And you’re listening to, The Joy Trip Project.
JTP Well, first of all, thank you very much for taking the time to to chat with me and to share a little bit about your experience in the management of public land. My first question is a very basic one. Tell me where you from and how you how you got to the position that you’re in now.
Sams So I’m from Oregon originally. I was born in Portland, Oregon, but raised on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeast Oregon, right along the Umatilla River, which was feeds into the big river, which is now known as the Columbia, that we know as the Necheewana. And I very fortunate to grow up in a very well-educated household. My parents had attended and graduated junior college, which was very rare to have two native parents who had actually not only attended, but graduated. And so education has always played an important part and also a freeing of oneself by having a good education. In addition to being surrounded by a number of elders, my grandfather and a number of tribal elders who raised me in a much more traditional and cultural sense of the Cayuse and Walla Walla people.
JTP And from that experience, how did you get into public service?
Sams Well, public service is expected in our family. We are supposed to give back more than we take, which is a simple principle. We also come from a group of people that believe that we have limited wants with unlimited resources, which is the exact opposite, which, you know, it’s funny, since I have a business degree that tells me that I have unlimited wants with limited resources. But that being said, you know, giving back to your community is important and you must give back more than you take. And so growing up, my father and his brother, along with my great uncles, had all served in the military. And they knew I knew at a young age that I would go into national service. And I did. Straight out of high school at age 17, I joined the Navy, served as an intelligence specialist and fought in the first Gulf War, and then immediately came home to try to find other work that would allow me to continue to be of service. And so deciding to go into the environmental and conservation field after I left the military was an important aspect. And working with young people doing environmental work, which I did for well over a decade before I transitioned to some other conservation work.
JTP And was that primarily on the West Coast in the communities around Oregon.
Sams Well known it was a mixture? So not long after I got out of the service, I actually helped set up the first AmeriCorps programs in New York City for two years with the City Volunteer Corps of New York. It was a brand new program for the City Volunteer Corps, bringing in AmeriCorps dollars and having a different experience for corps based programing throughout New York City. Most of my portfolio was in the environment, so doing environmental work out in Jamaica Bay at Gateway National, at the airfield and all over New York City was a great opportunity to learn about flora and fauna within the urban areas and how much actually exists in New York City that even the kids, the young people that I was working with didn’t realize, you know, almost all of the creeks and streams are underneath the city, but they do have outlets. And when they would find out that these creeks and streams still existed, that they just weren’t runoff from the city. It was very exciting as we did water model, water quality monitoring and clean up and all kinds of of a host issues. But then I came home to the West Coast and was with Earth Conservation Corps for eight years doing salmon and watershed restoration in 161,000 square miles of the Columbia base on Watershed and then doing eagle restoration here in Washington, DC, New York and in Maryland.
JTP Wow. I can only imagine that with such an extensive background in environmental conservation, there was probably quite a bit of of, I guess, personal service in terms of connecting with with the citizenry. So not only people in the tribal community, but also people in the management of public land. What was your interactions like early on in terms of your experience working with managers of both land, water and other natural resources?
Sams You know, it’s changed. It has changed dramatically in my professional career in 30 years. There was and I will just say, a strong arrogance and a Western science value that had been placed on management of natural resources. And by example, I will point out that when the dams were built on the Columbia River between the 1930s to the early 1970s, the biologist of the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service kept telling us we would have more salmon. And in the end, the tribes kept saying you can’t dam water for a wild species that must come up rapid waters. And sure enough, we have less salmon than ever before. And so not understanding that the people who’ve lived here for 10,000 years have been practicing science, also through observation and reasoning and deduction and modeling and being land managers. And while not every tribe may have done agriculture. Every tribal member was a horticulturalist. And so managing, you know, what is now 2 billion acres of the United States were well managed for thousands of years. And we can see some of the changes in the flora and fauna and what we’re having to do now, because I would say it hasn’t always been managed up to its best potential. We’re having catastrophic wildfires. It’s because we weren’t using fire as a tool. Fire was seen as the enemy. We are combating all across the United States invasive species that are drowning out native plants. As a matter of fact, I was just in Acadia watching where we’re doing the Big Meadow project and taking out a number of invasives, but actually restoring ecosystem function to be part of our climate resiliency and adaptation for Acadia. And that is going to be a great model as we expand that across the national park system.
JTP And I would imagine too that with the interest in maintaining the traditions of Native people, that we have perhaps an opportunity, you know, rare opportunity to be able to not necessarily reverse because it might be too late for that, but to get in better harmony with the natural environment. How much of the policies that you hope to implement will lean into the traditions of Native people and perhaps more traditional forms of conservation?
Sams Both President Biden and Secretary Haaland have issued both an executive order and a secretarial order that directs us to engage tribes in government to government relationships, but more importantly, inviting them to the table to use traditional ecological knowledge. Therefore, we’re marrying, you know, 10,000 years of science along with modern Western science, to have a better outcome. And I look forward to that because I’m already seeing some of the results of that here at the National Park Service. At Acadia and Katahdin, we work with the tribes of the Penobscot and restoring sweetgrass. We’re doing that in Grand Canyon and working with the tribes and understanding not only the big river down below, but also the flora and fauna that inhabit the entire canyon. And how can we better manage those species than we have in the past? We’re doing cooperative agreements with tribes in and around Yellowstone regarding bison management. So there’s a lot of great opportunity that this administration is putting forward. I feel very fortunate to be able to step into and help as we move this forward. Right now, I have a director’s memorandum that is pulling together all of those different resources on how we can better work with tribes that will be issued shortly, which will give guidance to every superintendent, staff member of how we’re going to engage tribes, how can we use traditional ecological knowledge, how if we’re planning that, we’re doing it on the forefront and we’re not consulting after we’ve already made a decision.
JTP So I think much of what your work is doing, based on what you just shared with me, is that we are kind of looking back in history now to see how we might be able to learn from the lessons of the past. How much of the work that you’re doing now is perhaps giving American citizens a better understanding and appreciation of the history that’s interpretive of the National Park Service?
Sams Well, I think that, you know, one thing I’ve always appreciated about the National Park Service and this goes back to 30 years ago when I did my first big tour from Maine to Florida. We visited as many national parks, monuments and memorials as a young sailor when I was with a group of the other guys. But what impressed me the most was a story I talk about when I went to Antietam, and we were there at the end of the day because we’d spent most of the day in Gettysburg and there was a gentleman there. They were getting ready. It’s about an hour before they were going to shut the gates, but he let us in and we toured the cemetery and then we toured the battlefield. It wasn’t until years later that I didn’t realize he wasn’t wearing a badge. He was wearing an embroidered plate, which tells me it tells me now that he was part of the maintenance staff. But his impassioned storytelling, how much he loved his park. I have seen that time and time again. So far I’ve been to about 53 national parks in the last seven months, and I don’t care if you are maintenance or you are back end doing finance or you’re a frontline ranger. People love telling the story of America. And they’re willing to tell the story in such a way that they’re not trying to draw you to a conclusion. It actually lets you try to figure and struggle with the information that you have to come out and hopefully become better learned about it, and also to spark more interest so that you can do deeper dives into some of these issues. And whether they are celebrations or some of the hardest parts of our history, it’s important that we be the storytellers for America and that we do it right.
JTP I think that’s perhaps the biggest and most important function of the Park Service, to be able to interpret history, but also give people, as you just said, the opportunity to make their own conclusions. And I think that one of the things that we neglect to do is tell a complete and comprehensive story of American history. And I know that since perhaps going back as far as even before the Obama administration, going back to, you know, in the early and early to mid 1900s, we start talking about the roles of underrepresented segments of the population that have actually played in the preservation of our national heritage. Is the Park Service working directly to be able to find and share those hidden stories that can ultimately shed more light on American history.
Sams Before I even came into the Park Service over the last 20 years, in particular this last 20 years, the last two decades, the Park Service has been much more open and working with communities and people of color to help tell a more full and more rich story. So by example, in my home reservation, we’re near the Whitman Mission, which has been prominently known as the Whitman Massacre. Well, that’s of course, if you were on the part that got killed, it’s probably we called it. On a tribal side it wasn’t a massacre. First of all, only a handful of people died and 50 some odd prisoners were taken and they were exchanged later. And from the tribe’s perspective, they were asking for retribution because Dr. Whitman broke his promise to the tribe on their land. And the National Park Service was open to that discussion. And we had a number of tribal elders that volunteered their time and actually became seasonals that helped influence and tell a much more full story. So both sides of the story. We see that now with the internment camps that are in our charge. You know, we’ve invited the Japanese-American community to come in and look at how we’re telling the story and what pieces are we missing, what firsthand accounts are we not telling? And we’re getting those from firsthand accounts rather than just from deep dove literature review and historical review. So I think what I’ve watched and I’m what I’m pleased about most is our staff were willing to do that and go out and talk to people so that we can actually see a better reflection of ourselves as Americans in our parks. Hopefully everyone can see themself in their park.
JTP So currently, at least by last reckoning, African-Americans in particular represent less than 7% of national park visitors, despite representing between 13 and 15 percent of the US population. There are certain communities in this country that, for whatever reason, feel that the parks aren’t for them. What’s the Park Service doing to reach out to those folks in the community that, for whatever reason, don’t think that they have a place there?
Sams You know, we’re doing a lot better community engagement, I think not just within our gateway communities. We are sending staff and rangers out to do talks and lectures in places you wouldn’t normally find us. We’re working very closely with historically Black colleges and universities. That’s a directive that came from the White House and the secretary. And we’re doing that so that we can figure out where the next generation of Rangers are. But there’s also so much help we’ve received from them in learning how to do. We’re doing MBA programs and helping us figure out. How economics work. So, you know, figuring out how we can get better connected to the variety of communities that we have across the United States and inviting them into the park. When I look back at the history and I started looking particularly at Mission 66 from 1956 to 1966, preparing for the 50th anniversary of the national park system. It’s very evident that the parks designed and set up by Mission 66 was built for the middle class, and at that time, most of the middle class was Anglo. It was post-World War II. People had money and means to get there, but it wasn’t encompassing people who may not have that type of funding. So now we’re looking at folks to ensure that they have access to their parks. As I said, just as in Acadia we have a free bus system that goes around that can get people into the park so you don’t even have to pay to get into the park. You can get on the bus and you get dropped off. We’re doing that and bringing in the Hispanic community by bussing down through Miami, into Biscayne, into the Everglades so that they have full range and access to the parks. There are these creative ideas that superintendents are really taking charge of to figure out how to ensure everyone has a welcomed experience into the national park system.
JTP This next generation of park enthusiasts will ultimately become park stewards and maybe even park rangers. I heard not so long ago that as much as 70% of the federal government staffing will probably retire in the next 10 to 15 years. And I would assume that a majority of many of those will be park personnel. What are you doing to create pathways for young people in particular to have aspirational careers that might land them in the position that you’re in now?
Sams Well, one one program is called Pathways that does just that. But we also are recruiting corps members who are doing work. So working with young people who are wanting to come in and do really on the ground hands work. But one of the things we do know and since I’ve got here, one of my initiatives is to modernize our business practices. Our HR staff work very, very hard. But we noticed that we didn’t have recruiters. Recruiting is a whole different thing. And so we’ve been waiting for people to come to us. You know, we’ll advertise. We expect them to get online and do USA Jobs. USA Jobs is very complicated. So what we do know is that we need to hire a cadre of recruiters who can go out and go into communities, help recruit that next generation and help them get through the process to even be considered for hiring. So there’s been a real emphasis on doing that. Lena McDowell, the deputy director, and Rita Moss, her deputy I’ve been going out. Rita in particular has been going out the field to to look at this and how we can do it better. What types of recruiters are we going to need as we start to centralize our HR System so that we can reach that next generation of stewards?
JTP There’re elements in our country right now that want to suggest that we aren’t as representative, that we are much more representative than we probably are. Have you felt any of the, you know, perhaps vitriol or anger from people who suggest that that there’s nothing wrong with our national parks and there’s nothing that needs to be done to make them more diverse and equitable for more people?
Sams We know that we are less diverse than we were over a decade ago, but that means we need there’s some more work to do and trying to build a better understanding that we have to work with diversity at all levels of of our park management and of the national park system. And what I like to point out to people, humans are the only ones that have broken each other up into little boxes and tried to divide each other away. But yet we work in some of the most beautiful spaces in which without diversity, ecosystem function doesn’t work. So that’s the natural process. So how can we get it so that it’s the natural practice of how we go about hiring and recruiting people to ensure that we also mirror what the American public look like and we’re going to get there. And I’d say many of the junior staff are very excited about it. And most recently, when I broke down what our national leadership team looks like, we actually are over half people of color and women. And so national leadership is starting to reflect that. Now, I just need the rest of the field to start to reflect that.
JTP That’s good to hear. Well, by last reckoning, I think that we there’s a $7 billion backlog of.
Sams $22 billion.
JTP Okay. All right. I was being generous. $22 billion backlog of deferred maintenance in the in the park system right now. Are we any closer to addressing that? Correcting it? Was was that included perhaps in the new stimulus bill? Can we see improvements that we are physically in right now?
Sams You know, what I’m impressed with is the the deliberateness that the staff here are taking in how we’re making those investments from GAOA, which, you know, it’s anniversary is on the fourth. And so I’m looking and seeing we’ve spread a go of money in almost every state of the Union in parks, large and small. We make sure that in talking to the parks and how we’re distributing funds, is there a good business case? Are we doing also Justice 40? Are we making sure that we’re making those investments? Because we have to demonstrate to the American people that the investments that they’re making, whether it is in new septic systems or roadways or archways or bridges or trails, that we are going to make sure that these are here for several more generations. And I’ve been impressed with how it’s been going so far. The implementation out in the field is very, very strong, and we’re taking the case back to Congress so that we can demonstrate to them that this is what we’re doing on behalf of the money that you have invested in us, recognizing that, you know, at 22 billion, basically even the 7 billion we have will barely get us a third of the way where we need to go. So at some point, we’re going to have to work with Congress to look at about another reauthorization. Right now, I think we’re starting to normalize that. There are congressmen that are already talking about it, which I think is very helpful. But if we don’t demonstrate that and we don’t invest this money wisely, I would not expect them to, you know, do a reauthorization.
JTP Well, at the very least, as part of a business development package, you know, the amount of tourism dollars that can be utilized in a community like Yellowstone, for example, that had many of its roads washed out, you know, due to the recent rainfalls in the road into the Denali is still closed.
JTP You know, you have these two iconic national parks that have limited access because of lack of the ability to travel to those places. How much of the the business community or some of the gateway communities, how much could they could potentially contribute to the support and development of the infrastructure that’s going to be needed to keep the parks open?
Sams Oh, absolutely. You know, we are working with our gateway communities so that they can get access to the GAOA money and to the bipartisan infrastructure law, which is even, you know is $1.4 trillion investment that we have out there. You know, it’s something we’re probably going to see another generation. And because of that, we are helping our gateway communities and local communities tap into the access to that, because that also helps us with our infrastructure needs in those local communities. So, you know, helping them figure out where our interconnected roads are for bridges and safety concerns, upgrading some of their septic systems, because many times we don’t have them, we don’t have the water facilities and it’s in the local towns. So how can we help them in order to get those grant fundings and get that on the ground for them? Because we all end up benefiting and you know, all boats rise together.
JTP Absolutely. We’re coming up on the first year of your tenure here in.
Sams December Yes.
Sams I’ve only been here eight months.
JTP If you’re going to give yourself a grade, how do you think you’re doing and where do you think you could improve on the administration that you’ve done so far?
Sams You know, I don’t know what a grade I’d give myself. I feel very, very fortunate to have inherited a team that is, you know, very well disciplined. They have a good understanding. I think that in the last five years, because they didn’t have a confirmed director, they were looking just for direction and some leadership. And I tried to lay out my seven priorities in as plain as English as possible and be able to measure those both quantitative and qualitatively. And they’ve hit the ground running. I mean, I’ve been highly impressed going around to and visiting with regional directors and superintendents how they have taken those initiatives and ran with them and are already starting to see progress within the parks. Some of them also we’re doing this work way before, but nobody was recognizing them for the work that they were doing. A number of parks had already been working with tribes, but they’ve been keeping it quiet. Now they can finally say, this is what we’re doing, and now these are the add-ons we can do with those to ensure funding between the tribes and the parks and get co stewardship operating within our park system, modernizing our business systems. I think, you know, there’s going to be tricky. I think if I’m the one, there are two areas I really want to work on that I think can do better. One is information technology and our infrastructure. We’re end of line in most cases of telecommunications. 70% of our parks are on T1 lines that were developed in 1964. And so I was just recently and pointing to the second gentleman, how we get information into Crater Lake in Oregon. And it’s on this big dish that we have to bounce a signal off and then it bounces into the park, which is not stable, you know, and offers its own concerns if we have a medical emergency. So, we need to figure out and talking with Senator King and Senator Daines, who chair the subcommittee for National Parks and Senate natural resources, energy and natural resources, they’re also very keenly aware of that and trying to figure out what type of bill we could use and funding we could do to advance that. And the other, of course, is just ensuring the morale, safety and welfare of the staff that are out there. So many of the staff want accountability and there seems to have been a lack of accountability. And so I think I can do better in trying to make sure that that’s happening out in the field and that people are also getting the training that they need. Many of the junior staff don’t get enough leadership training, in my opinion, and so sometimes they don’t know how to deal with conflict and do conflict resolution. And people work together very closely out in the field. They’re very remote areas, so it doesn’t take much to have a rift. But how do you then get over that and be able to continue to work together so that we don’t have bullying and other issues out there? We don’t want to see that. So I think those two areas, what I really like to kind of focus on in the next coming months of what can we do, how can we do it better?
JTP Okay. My last question and thank you again for taking the time to talk with me. We’re kind of creeping up on the Sesquicentennial, you know. So in 2026, we’ll celebrate 250 years of America. How or what role do you think that the Park Service can play in telling that very comprehensive story of America? But most importantly, how can we do it in such a way that everyone can indeed feel represented in that narrative?
Sams I think we’re going to play a very important role and I’m very excited. We will be rolling out our A-250 plan shortly and what I’ve seen and what I’ve observed so far, and how we’re going to tell a much more fuller story. You know, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness never said it was going to be easy. And we need to uplift those tough stories of our Civil Rights Movement of all the different people who’ve have come in to try to make a life here in the United States and to make this union more stronger. And it’s because of those struggles that they’re willing to put, in some cases their own lives on the line, that we have a much stronger United States, and we need to celebrate that our union is diverse and that we can only be stronger by bringing in diverse voices to the table. You know, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around the world and I’ve been in monocultures like Japan and other places. And while they are strong nations, I think we have been we’re still leaders in the world in innovation because of our diversity, because we have so many different people at the table teaching and providing new information and we can uprise. We can look that up in the parks, both the top stories, as the secretary says, let’s be fierce in our storytelling and also the good stories that are happening out there. And so, you know, as we celebrate America’s birthday, their 250th year. We need to tell some of those hard stories and. The struggles that come out of there and then the positive effects that ripples to every American who benefits from those struggles.
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