The U.S. Senate has unanimously approved the nomination of Charles “Chuck” Sams III as National Park Service director, which will make him the first Native American to lead the agency.
Some conservationists hailed Sams’ confirmation Thursday night as a commitment to equitable partnership with tribes, the original stewards of the land.
“I am deeply honored,” Sams told the Confederated Umatilla Journalon Friday. “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 oversees more than 131,000 square miles (339,000 square kilometers) of parks, monuments, battlefields and other landmarks. It employs about 20,000 people in permanent, temporary and seasonal jobs, according to its website.
Get D.C. area news, weather forecasts and lifestyle content to your inbox. Signup for NBC Washington newsletters.
Sams is the agency's first Senate-confirmed parks director in nearly five years. It was led by acting heads for years under the Trump administration, and for the first 10 months of Biden's presidency. Jonathan Jarvis, who was confirmed as park service director in 2009, left the agency in January 2017.
During confirmation hearings, Sam noted his experience with nonprofit work that included facilitating land transfers and working with volunteers on conservation and invasive species management, according to Indian Country Today.
He also said he would work to ensure the Indigenous history of National Park Service lands is broadly reflected, in addition to incorporating Indigenous views and knowledge in decision-making. He said 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.”
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, said in August, when President Joe Biden nominated Sams, that he brings diverse experience. The National Park Service is part of the Interior Department.
Sams is Cayuse and Walla Walla and 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,” said Bobbie Conner, director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute on the 270-square-mile reservation.
Kat Brigham, chair of the board of trustees of the Confederated Tribes, recalled Sams fishing for salmon in the Columbia River as a young man, standing on a scaffold and using a net, according to tradition.
“I'm very proud, and I think 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 said. "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 Sen. Ron Wyden, who had asked the Senate to pass the nomination by unanimous consent, described Sams as a “role model in the stewardship of American land and waters, wildlife and history.”
Sams' confirmation means Congress and parkgoers will have a steady, experienced leader to rely on in the years ahead, the Democrat said.
Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Maryland-based Chesapeake Conservancy, celebrated the news. His organization works to conserve natural and cultural resources at North America's largest estuary, Chesapeake Bay, where the National Park Service manages some sites.
“This has been a historic year for the U.S. Department of the Interior, with the confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland as the first Native American Cabinet secretary of the United States, and now the confirmation of Chuck Sams as the first Native American to serve as director of the National Park Service," Dunn said. Haaland on Friday formally declared “squaw” a derogatory term and said she is taking steps to remove it from federal government use and to replace other derogatory place names.
Dunn pointed 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, 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,” Dunn said.
Sams is a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, appointed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. Previously, he held several positions with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, including executive and deputy executive director. He has also led the Indian Country Conservancy, among other organizations.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Concordia University-Portland and a master of legal studies in Indigenous Peoples Law from the University of Oklahoma. Sams is a U.S. Navy veteran.
He has also been an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Whitman College.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.