Why Biden’s NPS Director Nominee Matters More than Ever
The National Park Service hasn’t had a director in four years. The Biden administration is trying to fix that but faces a host of major challenges.
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Update: November 19, 2021: Charles Sams III was confirmed as the director of the National Park Service on November 18.
Last week the Biden administration announced it’s nominating Charles “Chuck” Sams, a Navy veteran, conservationist, and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, for director of the National Park Service. He faces a long list of challenges: first, he must pass a Senate confirmation. If confirmed, Sams will be the first Native American to lead the NPS. He’ll also run an agency besieged by extreme weather caused by climate change, a staff depleted by the Trump administration, and a surge in public visitation.
But perhaps Sams’s biggest challenge will be in charting a new path for an agency that’s gone without a director for over four years. I sat down with Jon Jarvis, who ran the Park Service during the Obama administration, to find out why.
The government shutdown that ran from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019, was the longest in history. And it hit our National Parks particularly hard, since a still unknown member of the Trump administration ordered that the parks remain open to the public during that time. Without a budget to pay most staff members, the parks were staffed only by a skeleton crew of first responders, leaving visitors unsupervised and park facilities unmaintained. People died, human waste was strewn everywhere, and precious flora, fauna, and facilities were damaged and destroyed. When it was last quantified in 2018, Park Service’s maintenance backlog stood at $11.92 billion, a number that was growing by $313 million a year. Three years later, we still don’t have a full accounting of the damage caused by the shutdown, or any idea of where the total backlog now stands.
Why? “They only cared about fossil-fuel extraction, and wanted to avoid any negative PR for the Park Service,” says Jarvis. Because national parks hold so much weight in our collective imagination and shared identity, he says, then secretary of the interior David Bernhardt took extreme steps to keep Park Service leaders and park staff from speaking out about concerns over extraction projects adjacent to park units. They also wanted to avoid press about larger efforts to turn NPS-managed land over to oil, gas, and coal production, as occurred when the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments were redrawn, in benefit of those industries.
“A lot of these guys are seriously reconsidering their careers right now.”
Decision-making power was taken away from park staff, managers, and leadership, and moved all the way up to the secretarial level. Jarvis describes an absurd situation, in which even something as simple as a press release announcing the creation of an enrichment program for children at an individual park had to get approval from the secretary of the interior—a Cabinet-level position in the White House.
“Even now, Park Service employees aren’t sure what they’re authorized to do,” says Jarvis.
And that problem was made worse by what Jarvis describes as a deliberate effort to remove career staff from leadership positions in NPS. He cites the case of Dan Wenk, the longtime superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Wenk was forced out of the Park Service in 2017, less than a year before his planned retirement, in an act CBS News described as “political retribution.”
Even while decision-making abilities, leadership, and institutional knowledge have been removed from the Park Service, the staff’s day-to-day responsibilities have exploded. Visitation to national parks steadily increased over the past decade, then boomed exponentially when pandemic shutdowns ended. The Trump administration refused to implement a mask mandate in parks, even in states that required them (a mandate was issued in February, shortly after Biden’s inauguration). Other COVID-19 precautions and regulations were lackluster, leaving park staff to fend for themselves in regards to both their own safety and that of visitors. In a situation reminiscent of what’s going on in air travel right now, fistfights have been breaking out among park visitors, even as there are fewer park rangers to break them up.
Adding to the Park Service’s problems is the growing impact of climate change. Glaciers are disappearing in Glacier National Park. Death Valley National Park is lurching from one temperature record to the next. And the Joshua Trees are dying in Joshua Tree National Park. Other units are experiencing flooding, fires, and drought, threatening the very things NPS employees signed up to protect.
Jarvis explains together, these issues combine to create a crisis in morale among NPS staff. And he relates concern among Park Service employees that, should the 2024 elections again go in favor of extreme right-wing politicians, they could face a repeat of, or even worse conditions than they experienced over the past four years.
“A lot of these guys are seriously reconsidering their careers right now,” he says.
I asked Bernhardt about Jarvis’s criticisms. “Under my leadership, in August of 2020, the Great American Outdoors Act was enacted, and a process to evaluate and improve our wonderful National Parks was developed and implemented,” the former interior secretary told me in an email. “In the same legislation, the [Land and Water Conservation Fund] was mandatorily funded. I don’t think any other secretary of the interior accomplished that type of mandatory funding investment to address the maintenance backlog and expand recreational opportunities. There are no photos of me with a Park Service hat or a fly reel on backward.”
Bernhardt did not address his attempts to hijack LWCF funding just days before November’s election, after Republican politicians had campaigned on its passage.
A full and intact leadership structure is critical to the Park Service’s ability to plan for and direct those funds to get the most out of this once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Should Sams be confirmed by the Senate, the biggest challenge he’ll face is fixing the mess the previous administration left behind. Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. While the National Park Service has never been in worse state, the opportunity to completely reinvent it has also never been this good. All it needs is leadership equal to that opportunity.
“There’s money for the maintenance backlog, there’s a sympathetic administration, and there’s public interest,” says Jarvis. “The Park Service will be vital to achieving Biden’s climate change and infrastructure goals, too.”
Jarvis is talking about the Great American Outdoors Act, which funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at a quarter of its intended budget. That’s directing $6.65 billion to park repairs over the next five years. The NPS is hoping to spend $1.3 billion over the next ten months alone.
And that’s not likely to be the last windfall the Park Service will get over the next few years. The Senate’s bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which looks like it may pass Congress this year, will likely direct significant funding to national parks, which contain 12,500 miles of roads, 1,700 road bridges, and 70 road tunnels. Another Biden administration priority is the Civilian Climate Corps, which the president hopes to direct $10 billion in funding toward. That could help parks prepare for or even prevent some climate-related disasters. And the president’s call to conserve 30 percent of American land and waters by 2030 seems like it will lean heavily on the Park Service. The NPS currently manages 84.6 million acres of land, or 3.4 percent of this country’s total landmass.
A full and intact leadership structure is critical to the Park Service’s ability to plan for and direct those funds to get the most out of this once-in-a-generation opportunity. What are the odds that Sams will pass Senate confirmation?
“I can’t see any major problems he has,” says Jarvis. “But that doesn’t mean he’s going to have an easy time.”
Jarvis relates the story of his own confirmation process in 2009, which was delayed by Republican senators. He explains that, while those senators appeared to have no issue with him, the confirmation served as an opportunity for them to extract unrelated concessions from the Obama administration.
“The later in an administration a confirmation takes place, the more fraught it’s likely to be,” he explains. Now past the first 100 days of the Biden administration, Senators are turning their eyes to the 2022 midterm elections, and are seeking out the opportunities for sound bites and air time any hearing might give them.
The Senate returns from its summer recess on September 15, and it looks like Sams’s confirmation hearings will be high up on its list of priorities. West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and who has frustrated many of the Biden administration’s priorities, has stated he wants to “get this position filled as quickly as possible.” The Natural Resources Committee will oversee Sams’s initial confirmation hearings before referring the nomination to the Senate floor for a full vote from the chamber.
The process will hopefully take place before the end of the year. But it will likely coincide with the larger battle over the next federal budget, and the sweeping spending packages Democrats in Congress are going to try to pass through budget reconciliation. Because that course circumvents Republican senators’ ability to filibuster, odds are they’re going to be looking for other opportunities to block Democrat priorities.
Should Sams pass, he’ll face difficult tests from the beginning. Jarvis says he hopes any future director will “re-authorize Park Service staff to do their jobs,” and in that process rebuild an agency culture and mission capable of surviving any hypothetical future GOP administration. He’ll have an unprecedented amount of money to spend but will also need to direct it in such a manner that it doesn’t just fix current problems. It needs to enable our national parks to survive new challenges in a more difficult future. If our country is going to rise to the challenge climate change poses, Sams, or any other future director, will play an outsize role. This isn’t the Park Service that Jarvis left behind; it’s a much lessened agency that’s suddenly more important than ever.