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Biden nominates first Native American to run National Park Service

President Joe Biden announced the tribal leader’s nomination for director of the parks agency alongside four other picks for federal roles.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Charles “Chuck” F. Sams III, who has worked in nonprofit environmental preservation roles for more than 25 years, became the first Native American nominated to lead the National Park Service late Wednesday.

President Joe Biden announced Sams’ nomination alongside four other picks for key roles in various federal agencies.

Sams is a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla and served as that Oregon-based group's deputy executive director, communications director and environmental health and safety officer. He holds a master’s degree of legal studies in indigenous people’s law from the University of Oklahoma.

He most recently had been serving as a member on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a committee created by Congress in 1980 to monitor energy’s role in the environment in Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington. The group’s main responsibility is to create regional power plans and fish and wildlife programs in those states.

Sams also has responsibilities as a board member on two environmental-related organizations: the Gray Family Foundation and the Oregon Cultural Trust. Both support Oregon-based investment in environmental stewardship and state culture.

Brian Rogers, the Oregon Cultural Trust’s executive director, said in an interview Thursday that Sams has been instrumental in providing direction for developing culturally-inclusive programs — especially for the tribal community.

“He’s also helped us out with our strategic plan that we developed a couple years back,” Rogers said. “All of our board is involved in that, but Chuck gave a lot of great insight about the kinds of activities that we should be doing to be more inclusive and equitable.”

Rogers, who is also executive director of the Oregon Arts Commission, said one of Sams’ major contributions was altering how the leadership of both groups interacted, creating a joint committee for more-cohesive planning.

In a statement Wednesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland – the first Native American to serve in that role – lauded Sams’ nomination and emphasized the importance of protecting the country’s natural resources. The National Park Service is an agency within the Department of the Interior.

“The diverse experience that Chuck brings to the National Park Service will be an incredible asset as we work to conserve and protect our national parks to make them more accessible for everyone,” Haaland said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him to welcome Americans from every corner of our country into our national park system.”

The National Park Service hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed director since former President Barack Obama nominated Jonathan Jarvis in 2009. He held that role until January 2017.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration cycled out various acting directors for the National Park Service, including David Vela, whose nomination never got to the Senate floor for a vote. Vela resigned after less than a year on the job after a legal challenge to his appointment was filed in Washington federal court by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Western Watersheds Project, who alleged the Interior Department violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act by appointing Vela.

Will Shafroth, CEO of the National Park Foundation, the charitable arm of the Park Service, stressed the importance of having a Senate-confirmed director in the post.

“Having a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed director in place to lead the more than 20,000 employees of the National Park Service is essential to the health, wellbeing and overall success of our parks,” Safroth said in a statement Wednesday. “Mr. Sams brings a significant background of experience that prepares him exceptionally well to take on and advance the mission of this critical federal agency.”

The Senate is set to return from summer recess on Sept. 13, and is expected to take up Sams' nomination soon after.

The other nominees announced by the Biden administration on Wednesday evening include Scott A. Nathan, nominated to be CEO of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation; Viquar Ahmad for assistant secretary for administration and chief financial officer of the Department of Commerce; Matthew Axelrod for assistant secretary for export enforcement at the Commerce Department; and Robert Gordon for assistant secretary for financial resources at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Follow Jack Rodgers on Twitter

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