How Chuck Sams Plans to Fix Our National Parks
It's been six months since the first NPS director in five years stepped into office facing $22 billion in deferred maintenance. This is what he's accomplished so far—and what's still coming.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
In November 2021, Chuck F. Sams III made history when the Senate unanimously confirmed him as the first Native person to serve as the director of the National Park Service. Sams, who is a Navy veteran and member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, recently talked to one of our reporters about how his first six months in the role have been and what plans he has for the future of America’s best idea.
OUTSIDE: I really want to ask about how, after what seemed to be a pretty tumultuous five years without an official confirmed Director of the National Park Service, you entered into your office facing a lot—glaciers melting in Glacier National Park, rampant wildfires in the West, and this massive maintenance backlog. I was curious if you could talk for a bit about how the NPS aims to tackle some of these huge issues under your direction?
SAMS: The Park Service was without anyone for five years, and I would be remiss if I didn’t applaud them for everything that they have been able to do in those five years.
When the infrastructure was first calculated, it was calculated at about $12 billion in deferred maintenance. Once we were able to figure out the standard that’s being used by several other departments, we were able to calculate the real, true costs. Sadly, that was an 80-percent increase that got us to over $22 billion in deferred maintenance.
We have an obligation to prove to Congress, and more importantly to prove to the American people, that we’re investing their dollars on the ground in a way that is not only good and repairs our facilities and our infrastructure, but that we’re doing so in a resilient and sustainable way. When we look at the bipartisan infrastructure law, it’s a $1 trillion investment in America’s infrastructure. It’s supporting the NPS’ efforts to tackle the climate crisis in parks across the country. It’s the largest investment in American history devoted to the restoration and protection of the environment.
One initiative that we’re using Bipartisan Infrastructure Law money primarily for is firefighting. We anticipate receiving $22 million this next year from bill funding to tackle this issue around firefighting.
I started my career as a wildlands firefighter 30-plus years ago, and it was seasonal. It’s not the same anymore. My son’s a firefighter. They were starting to recruit him while he was still in college, back in January, because it is now 365 days a year. We’ve seen that all over the United States, because of the climate crisis that we are in. So the bipartisan infrastructure law provides us funding that will ensure that we have the staff, materials, and equipment ready so that we can get on the ground running.
And Acadia received $500,000 to improve recreational trails in the Great Meadow Wetlands. Not only does the bill provide for infrastructure and firefighting, but it also provides for the trail system.
The National Park Service has launched a lot of recent initiatives in an effort to increase racial equity, make sure that people in more urban centers have adequate access to public lands, and elevate tribal voices. What are some of the newest examples of this?
This month, we announced round five of the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership selection: $61.1 million in grant funding is available to communities in 26 cities across the United States to create new parks and trails or substantially renovate those existing parks.
We also announced $16.24 million in the African American Civil Rights Grants to fund 44 projects in 15 states to preserve sites and stories related to the African American struggle for equality. This leads to Secretary Haaland’s and my belief that we want to tell not only the untold stories, but some of the hard stories about America’s past. That way, we ensure that we have the next generation learning about those stories so that we don’t repeat them in the future.
Last month, you mentioned in an interview that you believe that traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge could help tackle many of the climate change-related issues that the National Park Service is facing. Could you expand on that?
The basis of all science is observation. You observe something and then you write down your observations, and make conclusions based on your observations. For Native people who’ve lived here for at least 10,000 years, which would equate to at least 1,500 generations, you’re talking about long-term observation of these lands that they’ve called home since time immemorial. And yet, as we know, western science has either dismissed or, at times, just ignored those observations.
President Biden recognized that and, through his executive orders, talked to the departments saying that we must go out there and be able to integrate traditional ecological knowledge into our planning. To do it at the forefront and work with tribes will help us figure out how to be stronger in our fight against climate change, but also how to be more resilient in the future.
Do you have an example of a story or two, maybe from your recent travels to tribal lands, or to national park units, in which this type of observational knowledge from Indigenous peoples or Tribes could actually lead to an initiative that might help fight climate change in the parks?
We’re working with the Seminole in Florida, looking at opportunities for them on the different little islands in the Everglades. What are the flora and fauna, and how do tribes ensure their survival and biodiversity through the use of fire? When I was traveling down there a couple of months ago, I watched a 10,000-acre burn in progress, and saw how that was managed. I actually visited with a tribe who expressed their appreciation that the National Park Service is working hand-in-hand with them on those types of projects.
Then, in the Northwest, we see great opportunities. Cam Sholly, at Yellowstone, has a number of projects that he’s working on related to traditional food sources and grasslands protection. These grasslands and how they’re managed by the tribes with traditional ecological knowledge will help in the propagation, protection, and enhancement of the buffalo herds that are within the park system.
Something that’s been in the news is the increasing crowds at some of our most beloved national parks. I’m curious how some of this funding can help to add new resources or disperse visitation?
First and foremost, we’re trying to bring in electric vehicles and buses to help mitigate some of the overcrowding. The fiscal year 2022 budget has provided funding for that. The fiscal year 2023 budget asks for additional funding. We have over 12,000 vehicles within the National Park Service, plus everybody else that comes into the park. If we can figure out how to better use electrified vehicles and buses, we think we can help manage better the crowds that come into the parks.
We’ve heard a lot about how the national parks are some of the areas that are first and hardest hit by climate change, and I was curious what your administration intends to do to help lessen its effects on these beloved natural places?
Climate change and the National Park System are ground zero. We’re very fortunate that we’ve had people on these landscapes, for example in Yellowstone for 150 years. It’s years of data, information, and resources. We’ve watched the permafrost melt away. We’ve watched glaciers retreat through a number of our parks in Alaska. We’ve seen some of the grasslands being burned off at some of our parks in the prairie lands.
We actually know how we can do better preservation for that, not just for its survival, but for its thriving ecosystem. We have some of the best scientists in the world on staff.
Most importantly, we’re able to share that data between the different federal agencies. I am very pleased to be able to work with Martha Williams at U.S. Fish and Wildlife and with Tracy Stone-Manning over at the BLM. We actually have regular conversations on ecosystem function as a whole, what we are doing to combat climate change, and how we can be more resilient through best-management practices and the scientists that we all have on staff. We recognize that we’re all in this together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.