The Aurora Borealis at Voyageurs National Park near the city of International Falls. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.
President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the National Park Service told a U.S. Senate panel Tuesday he would work to rebuild the agency’s workforce, which has shrunk even as park attendance hits new records.
Charles F. Sams III, of Oregon, would be the first enrolled tribal member to lead the National Park Service. He is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
If agreed to by the full Senate, he would also be the first confirmed head of the National Park Service since January 2017.
He faced members of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who asked for his commitment to improve specific parks and other NPS sites in their states.
Sams highlighted challenges with the National Park Service labor pool. The park service workforce is down from its peak, he said, while attendance has increased.
An agency web page shows permanent employment in 2020 was about 6% less than it was in 2010. Sams said the park service workforce has decreased 20% from “several years ago.”
Park attendance dropped from 327 million in 2019 to 237 million in 2020 as severe COVID-19 restrictions limited travel. But as outdoor recreation became seen as a safe alternative to other travel options, some parks, including Yellowstone, have set record monthly attendance records this year.
Sams said he would work to increase the workforce and improve morale, including by adding housing. He also said he would prioritize recruitment to boost staffing numbers.
“The National Park Service cannot achieve its mission without a well-supported workforce, and I’m committed to focusing on the caretaking of this mission,” he said. “Housing, staffing and other issues are impacting morale and deserve active attention.”
Sams told Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., that he would prioritize staffing and addressing the roughly $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog.
Sams also said he would work to improve the federal relationship with tribes, saying they should expect an open conversation with the federal government ahead of decision-making, “not after the fact.”
Sams is a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a position he was appointed to by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. He also worked as the executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and in other roles in tribal and state governments and nonprofit tribal and conservation groups.
Manchin said he expected Sams would be in office “very quickly.”
Republicans on the panel didn’t raise major objections to Sams, though ranking Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming said he was concerned Sams had never worked for the park service.
Other members of the committee asked Sams to commit to addressing issues at NPS sites in their states.
Sams told U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., he knew that some NPS employees in Montana commute more than 50 miles to their service stations and pledged again to improve housing options for parks employees.
Barrasso asked Sams to look into the $563 million maintenance backlog at Yellowstone National Park and $181 million backlog at Grand Teton National Park.
New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich said a lack of fencing was allowing cattle into the Valley Caldera National Preserve, disrupting wetlands, subalpine meadows and elk populations there.
Sams told U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., the NPS could use funding from the Great American Outdoor Act, a law enacted last year that provides additional funding to national parks, to adapt boat ramps in Lake Mead for lower water levels.
Sams won an endorsement from his home state senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, who introduced the nominee Tuesday. Wyden called Sams a “real leader and a role model” for stewardship and conservation.
“I can’t think of anybody in America better and more qualified to do this than Chuck Sams, with his unique perspective as the first Native American to lead the park service,” Wyden said. “This is, frankly, long overdue.”
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