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Native American Leads Park Service

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    The Grand Canyon National Park is covered in morning sunlight as seen from a helicopter near Tusayan, Arizona. (AP/Julie Jacobson)


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The U.S. Senate has unanimously approved the nomination of Charles “Chuck” Sams III as National Park Service director. The appointment makes him the first Native American to lead the agency. Some conservationists are hailing Sams’ confirmation as a commitment to fair partnerships with tribes, the early stewards of the land.

Sams is Cayuse and Walla Walla. He lives on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. There, he gained a reputation for being unflappable. He has worked in state and tribal governments and the nonprofit natural resource and conservation management fields for over 25 years.

“He is known for being steady at the helm and taking challenges in stride,” says Bobbie Conner, director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute on the 270-square-mile reservation.

Today, Sams is a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, appointed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown. He has held several positions with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Indian Country Conservancy, and other organizations.

During confirmation hearings, Sams noted his experience with nonprofit work, including facilitating land transfers and working with volunteers on conservation and invasive species management.

“I am deeply honored,” Sams says of the appointment. “I am also very deeply appreciative of the support, guidance, and counsel of my tribal elders and friends throughout my professional career.”

The National Park Service is part of the Interior Department. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, America’s first Native American Cabinet secretary, says Sams brings diverse experience to the job.

Kat Brigham, chair of the board of trustees of the Confederated Tribes, recalled Sams in the Columbia River as a young man. He was fishing for salmon while standing on a scaffold and using a net, according to tradition.

“It’s very exciting that we have a tribal member who’s first in history to be in charge of our National Park Service,” Brigham says. “He knows how important our land is. He knows that we need to protect our land, not only for today, but for our children’s children.”

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden describes Sams as a “role model in the stewardship of American land and waters, wildlife, and history.”

God takes stewardship seriously. He made Adam and Eve stewards of a beautiful garden. (Genesis 2:15) But their rebellion against the Creator caused thorns and weeds to grow. (Genesis 3:18) Worse yet, humans lost their righteousness before God (1 Corinthians 15:22) and brought a curse upon the whole Earth. (Genesis 3:16-19) Taking care of the God’s good gifts is a worthy endeavor—so long as the Creator is worshipped instead of the creation! (Romans 1:25)

Sams’ confirmation means Congress and parkgoers will have a steady, experienced leader to rely on in the years ahead, Wyden says.

The National Park Service oversees more than 131,000 square miles of parks, monuments, battlefields, and other landmarks. It employs about 20,000 people in permanent, temporary, and seasonal jobs, according to its website.

Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Maryland-based Chesapeake Conservancy, celebrates the news. He points to the forced migration of indigenous peoples that led to the creation of America’s public lands, including national parks. “As our country works to address those past tragedies,” he says, “it is appropriate that the leadership of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior reflect a new direction and a commitment to equitable partnership with the Indigenous peoples of the United States.”

Sams says it is important to work with Native Americans on traditional ecological knowledge “based on 10,000-plus years of management of those spaces to ensure that they’ll be here for future generations to enjoy.”

(The Grand Canyon National Park is covered in morning sunlight as seen from a helicopter near Tusayan, Arizona. AP/Julie Jacobson)