The National Park Service’s Perplexing Director

Charles “Chuck” Sams came to the National Park Service’s directorship as an outsider being counted on to improve employee morale, fight harassment in the agency, oversee how millions of Great American Outdoors Act dollars were being spent, and, as some believed, to be “a leader that NPS employees will admire and respect.”

But in the more than two years since he was confirmed, while Sams has generally kept a low profile, he has generated concern with some of his actions.

Disbanded The National Leadership Council

Though an outsider to the National Park Service when he was confirmed, Sams had a wealth of experience to tap, from three deputy directors to regional directors and dozens of superintendents across the National Park System who came up through the ranks. And there was the National Leadership Council (NLC), a band of Senior Executive Service NPS veterans who would gather with the director a few times a year to discuss what issues of merit were surfacing across the more than 85 million acres of the park system.

National Park Service Director Chuck Sams/NPS

“The NLC was a deliberative body, a place to hear from the field and from [Washington headquarters] and discuss the top issues, debate the merits and downsides and if possible come to some conclusions that can guide decisions by the director,” Jon Jarvis, the Park Service director during President Obama’s two terms in office, told me.

That would seem like a great deliberative body to help Sams deal with the myriad issues that confront the parks and the Park Service.

But in January he surprisingly, and quietly, disbanded the NLC.

Sams also never reached out to Jarvis for his thoughts on the merits of the council.

“I heard that he said he talked to his predecessors and they told him the NLC was an ineffective decision-making body,” Jarvis said. “First, I do not know which of his predecessors he asked, but he never contacted me. If he had, I would have said that the NLC was never designed nor intended to be a decision-making body. A group that large is generally too big to make decisions.”

Rather, he said, the council was to provide the director with information.

“I expanded the NLC from just the [regional directors] and the [associate directors] to include the [Senior Executive Service] superintendents. This gave voice to park leaders who were dealing with the issues like climate change, concessions, visitation, maintenance backlog, fires, housing, morale, etc.,” Jarvis said.

With the recent decision by Mike Reynolds, a nearly four-decades-long NPS veteran who served as park superintendent, regional director, acting Park Service director during the Trump administration, and most recently as Sams’ deputy for external and congressional affairs, to retire later this month, another layer of deep NPS experience and knowledge has been peeled away from Sams’ coterie. It also leaves just one deputy director, Lena McDowell, with a deep NPS resume. The other deputy director, Frank Lands, came from the Army just two years ago.

Now that he has disbanded [the NLC], Director Sams and his deputy director, Frank Lands, neither of whom have NPS experience, will be making decisions without any field input,” noted Jarvis. “That is a problem.”

Precedent-Setting Decision

Another troubling decision by Sams came in October when he signed off on a request to allow the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico to kill either a bald or golden eagle in Valles Caldera National Preserve for cultural purposes.

It was a decision that drew criticism not just for the hastiness with which it was made, but for the precedent it appears to have set when it comes to killing wildlife within the National Park System.

That decision, made just five weeks after the pueblo made the request, clearly conflicts with Park Service regulations that prohibit the taking of wildlife. Those regs specifically block the “use, or possession of fish, wildlife, or plants for ceremonial or religious purposes, except for the gathering and removal of plants or plant parts by enrolled members of an Indian tribe in accordance with 36 CfR § 2.6, or where specifically authorized by federal statutory law, treaty…”

That section does not allow for the taking of wildlife.

According to the Park Service Management Policies of 2006, a compendium of directives for superintendents, superintendents are allowed to “designate certain fruits, berries, nuts, or unoccupied seashells that may be gathered by hand for personal use or consumption if it will not adversely affect park wildlife, the reproductive potential of a plant species, or otherwise adversely affect park resources.” 

While a Park Service director can waive sections of the Management Policies, Sams has not said whether he took that route. And why the urgency before reaching a decision? Couldn’t the Park Service have said it would openly weigh — in public — the conflicting mandates for a similar request next year?  

In reaching his decision, Sams — no doubt sensitive to cultural issues from his own background as a Cayuse and Walla Walla — noted that “[W]hile NPS would not typically allow take of an eagle under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the issuance of the permit for take of a golden or bald eagle in this instance supports the park purpose to provide cultural connectivity between the Pueblo of Jemez and their ancestral lands and is consistent with the thousands of years of human use of the park for hunting and gathering, seasonal habitation, and ceremonial pilgrimage for which the park was established to protect.”

That said, it’s highly unusual for the NPS director to sign off on such a request; usually a park superintendent or regional director will do so. Sources within the Intermountain Region of the Park Service were told that Sams would make the decision, though they would be given a chance to review it. But they only had days, so experienced career staff, who understand both natural and cultural resources law and policy, were removed from any meaningful input. 

Also, the lack of public notice or discussion seemed to short-circuit the National Environmental Policy Act process. 

There are a variety of mechanisms for notifying the public of the availability of EAs and EISs, including the Federal Register, direct or electronic mailings, press releases, website updates, newsletters, and on PEPC. You are encouraged to use electronic communications and digital media whenever possible to facilitate public review and comment. One tool that is particularly useful for disseminating information and facilitating public comments is the PEPC system, which is specifically designed to help with collection, management, and analysis of public comments. The standard NPS practice is to accept written comments by mail, at public meetings if applicable, at a park unit headquarters, and online through the PEPC system. The preferred method for receiving comments is through the PEPC system; this should be clearly communicated in public outreach materials requesting comments.–NPS NEPA handbook

In skipping the public comment period, Sams said that, “NPS did not have time to circulate the [environmental assessment] to the public because of the limited window of time between application submittal and the start of the ceremonial period within which the proposed eagle take would occur. Public comment on an EA is only required to the extent practicable and due to the circumstances, NPS determined public review was not practicable.”

Again, why the rush?

Frank Buono, who has worked in almost every aspect of national parks for almost 30 years, told the Traveler in November that while the Code of Federal Regulations “contains an exception for existing Federal law or treaty rights. … Jemez Pueblo has no treaty right to take eagles in Valles Caldera or the adjacent Bandelier National Monument.”

While Buono said “numerous Native American tribes and pueblos” have connections with Valles Caldera, and some “do not support ceremonial take of eagles,” it was not clear from the environmental assessment prepared on the request or the Finding Of No Significant Impact signed by Sams whether the Park Service consulted with other tribes and pueblos on this request.

A number of retired Park Service managers and wildlife biologists recently wrote Interior Secretary Deb Haaland about the matter, asking that she take “immediate steps to ensure that the recent unlawful event at Valles Caldera does not stand nor recur in any other unit of our National Park System.”

On October 18, 2023, Director Chuck Sams violated the protective mandate of the National Park Service. He did so by signing a Finding of No Significant Impact for NPS approval of Jemez Pueblo members to take, kill, and remove park wildlife (a bald or golden eagle) from Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico,” the letter’s opening read. “Sams’ decision has no precedent in the history of the National Park System and significantly weakens the fundamental underpinnings of the Organic Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and subsequent laws.”

The letter added that, “[A]ny treaty rights for tribes to take eagles, the Supreme Court ruled in 1986, were supplanted by the [Bold and Golden Eagle Protection Act]. Except where specifically and explicitly provided for in a park enabling act, requests by Indian tribes, or others, to take eagles, living or dead, is in clear violation of NPS rules at 36 CFR 2.1 unless a legislative remedy to this matter is enacted.”

It added that, “[S]hould the Secretary or the Director wish to alter these protective mandates, it is to Congress they must turn to address the broad public policy considerations involved here. These decisions cannot be left in the hands of political appointees of any Administration.”

Sams has not explained his decision.

Life In The Trenches

While Sams came to the directorship with the No. 1 goal of improving employee morale, it’s too early to tell if he’s succeeding. The annual Best Places To Work in Federal Government survey continues to give the Park Service low scores. One section of note in the survey ranked the Park Service 396th out of 432 agencies concerning “the level of respect employees have for senior leaders, satisfaction with the amount of information provided by management and perceptions about senior leaders’ honesty, integrity and ability to motivate employees.”

Against that sentiment, the Park Service last fall appointed a superintendent of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail just five years after an Interior Department investigation determined that he had “committed criminal violations by submitting false travel vouchers and by accepting more than $23,000 in meals, lodging, and other in-kind gifts from non-Government organizations.”

While Sams might not have been directly involved in that appointment, it doesn’t speak highly of the tone the director had established when he came to the job. Beyond that, it would be highly unusual for a GS-15 superintendent to be hired without approval from the director’s office. If Sams did not know of it, that would also not speak well of leadership of the agency. 

There also continue to be complaints — and lawsuits — across the park system stemming from allegations of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. What steps are, or has, the director taken to address those issues?

As the most popular federal agency, one that oversees an incredible collection of parks thanks to taxpayer dollars and which last year attracted more than 325 million visitors and generated more than $50 billion in economic activity, it’s incumbent for the Park Service to strive for full transparency in its decision-making and operations. The agency as a whole has yet to reach that goal, and Sams’ actions fall short.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply
Shopping cart