A politically polarized Senate has set Oct. 19 for a hearing on the nomination of former Oregon tribal leader Chuck Sams as the next director of the National Park Service.
Sams, the longtime administrator of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, will appear before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee.
Sams is the latest in a series of nominations by President Joe Biden that is part of an effort to restore environmental policies rolled back under President Donald Trump.
If confirmed, Sams would be the first Native American to serve as National Park Service director. He is Cayuse, Walla Walla, Cocopah and Yankton Sioux. He would also be a rare outsider to head the service founded in 1916.
The director manages the 63 national parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Crater Lake. The agency’s 21,000 employees manage 423 sites making up 85 million acres in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories.
The hearing will likely include questions about Biden’s order announced Friday to reverse Trump’s decision to reduce the size of protected areas of national monuments in Utah and New England.
The order is meant to stop “a pendulum that swings back and forth depending on who is in public office,” Biden said.
Trump did not fill the position when it became vacant in January 2017, instead naming acting directors, skirting any Senate involvement in who would fill the position or National Park Service policies. Under the U.S. Constitution, key presidential appointments require the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
After stepping down from his leadership role at the Umatilla reservation, Sams was selected early this year by Gov. Kate Brown as a representative of Oregon on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. But even before he officially assumed that position, Brown and U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon were advocating Biden select Sams as National Park Service director.
“Chuck Sams is among Oregon’s finest, and I can’t think of a better person for the important role of National Park Service director,” Brown wrote to Biden. “I have worked closely with Chuck for many years, and have witnessed firsthand his unparalleled devotion and service to his Tribe, our state, and our nation.”
At the Oct. 19 hearing, Sams will be introduced by Wyden, a member of the committee. Sams will make an opening statement and then answer questions from the 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans on the committee.
If prior hearings before the committee are any indication, Sams can expect sharp questions about his plans for the service and his views on issues from global warming to the annexation of land by the federal government. Biden has asked for up to $3.5 billion for the National Park Service, saying outdated facilities, roads, and staffing levels could permanently endanger the natural areas.
The committee hearings have been the source of partisan fireworks earlier this year. The nominations of New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland as secretary of the Interior and National Wildlife Foundation executive Tracy Stone-Manning as director of the Bureau of Land Management were contentious over environmental and land use priorities. Both were eventually confirmed by the Senate.
With most of the policy issues already hashed out with Haaland, who as secretary of the Interior oversees both the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the nomination of Sams is unlikely to generate a similar level of political heat as earlier confirmations.
A key sign that Sams’ nomination is unlikely to be contentious is that he will be one of three Biden nominees to appear on Oct. 19. The committee will also take up the nominations of Willie L. Phillips Jr. to be a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Brad J. Crabtree to be an assistant secretary of energy.
While Republicans have focused on the environmentalist philosophies of Biden’s nominees, some liberals have questioned if Sams is the best choice to lead the agency after more than four years of turbulence over policies that led many career NPS employees to resign or retire rather than implement Trump’s orders.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is counted among the 50 votes to give the party parity with Republicans, sits on the committee that will question Sams.
King had publicly chastised Biden for taking what he felt was too long to nominate a new head of the park service. When Biden announced Sams as his choice in August, King’s reaction was mixed.
In an August interview with Energy & Environment, a publication affiliated with Politico magazine, King said he was concerned that Sams had no previous experience with the park service. Directors had historically been selected from among the agency’s senior managers.
“I’m reserving judgment,” King said.
But after reassurances from those who had worked with Sams on public land trust and conservation issues, King said he could see an upside to Sams serving as head of the service.
“I’ve heard from people that know him that he’s very capable and would bring fresh eyes and new perspective to the department, to the service,” King said.
The hearing will be held at 10 a.m. Oct. 19 in Room 366 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The hearing will be livestreamed on the U.S. Senate website, senate.gov.