Why Biden’s NPS Director Nominee is Important

As announced last week, the Biden administration is announcing the nomination of Charles “Chuck” Sams as director of the National Park Service. Sams is a Navy veteran, conservationist, and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. In the first instance, he needs Senate confirmation. NPS will be led by the first Native American if Sams is confirmed. Additionally, his agency will be plagued by extreme weather conditions caused by climate change, a staff depleted by the Trump administration, and an increased number of visitors.

A bigger challenge for Sams will be steering an agency that has been vacant for over four years without a director. During the Obama administration, Jon Jarvis led the Park Service. I asked him why.

Jarvis says it has been four years since he left. Remember that the NPS has had to deal with everything from the government shutdown to the pandemic, as well as record-breaking visitor numbers.

As of January 25, 2019, the longest government shutdown had ever been experienced. Our National Parks were particularly hard hit, which is why the parks remained open to the public during that time, according to an unidentified member of the Trump administration. The parks were left unsupervised and unmaintained because there was no budget for paying most staff members. It resulted in the death of a lot of people, the destruction of precious flora and fauna, and damage to many facilities. During 2018, the backlog of maintenance for the Park Service stood at $11.92 billion, a number that was growing by $313 million a year. We still don’t have a full accounting of the shutdown’s damage or an idea of where the backlog stands today three years later.

When? Jarvis says the Park Service was only concerned with fossil-fuel extraction, and did not want any bad publicity. He says that because national parks hold such significance in our collective imagination and shared identity, then interior secretary David Bernhardt took extreme measures to keep Park Service leaders and park staff from raising concerns about extraction projects adjacent to park units. In addition, they would like to avoid the negative media attention that may result from their redrawing of the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in order to benefit mining and energy industries, respectively.

“There are a lot of people rethinking their careers at the moment.”

All decision-making authority was stripped from the park manager, staff, and leadership, leaving only the secretariat. As described by Javis, any press release announcing an enrichment program for children at a specific park must be approved by the secretary of the interior of the White House.

The Park Service employee says he is not sure of his authority even now.

Jarvis’ claim that NPS was stripping career staff of leadership positions significantly aggravated the problem. He cites Dan Wenk as an example from Yellowstone National Park. The termination of Wenk’s employment in 2017 was described as a political retribution by CBS News.

In spite of losing its leadership, decision-making ability, and institutional knowledge, the Park Service has increased its day-to-day responsibilities. National parks saw a dramatic increase in visitors after the pandemic shutdown ended. Masks are required in parks in some states (the recommendation came soon after Biden’s inauguration in February), but the Trump administration refuses to enforce the rule. There was no COVID-19 regulation or precaution in place to ensure the safety of park staff and visitors. While park rangers aren’t available to break them up, many park visitors have engaged in fistfights, similar to what’s going on with air travel today.

A changing climate is causing additional problems for the National Park Service. Its glaciers are disappearing. At Death Valley National Park, temperature records are being broken one after another. Joshua Tree National Park is experiencing a tree dying epidemic. Fires, floods, and droughts have a detrimental effect on NPS employees’ livelihoods, threatening the very assets they are responsible for preserving.

As a result, Jarvis believes NPS employees are facing a morale crisis. Suppose right-wing politicians win again in 2024, employees are worried about possible conditions.

Several of these men are considering quitting their jobs, he says.

In discussing Jarvis’ criticism, Bernhardt and I had a conversation. Under the leadership of the former interior secretary, the Great American Outdoors Act was enacted in August of 2020, and a process was developed to evaluate and improve our wonderful National Parks. The [Land and Water Conservation Fund] was also funded via two other statutes. Similarly intensive efforts have not been made by others to increase recreational opportunities and address maintenance backlog. Neither the Park Service hat nor the fly reel in any of the photos appear to be backward.

A few weeks before the November election, Republican politicians were campaigning for LWCF passage. Bernhardt didn’t mention his attempt to secure the funds.

It is crucial for an organization’s leadership structure to be intact and fully functional in order to plan for and manage these funds effectively.

Upon confirmation by the Senate, Sams’ major challenge will be fixing the mess left by the previous administration. The news isn’t all gloom and doom, however. Despite the worst state ever of the National Park Service, this is also the prime time for a complete revamp. Leaders who can match that opportunity are all it takes.

The funding is there, the administration is sympathetic, and there is public interest,” Jarvis says. Park service funding will help Biden achieve his infrastructure and climate change goals, too.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is funded at a quarter of its intended budget under the Great American Outdoors Act. Sixty-five billion dollars will be invested in park repairs over the next five years. A total of $1.3 billion will be spent by the NPS in the next ten months.

And that’s not likely to be the Park Service’s last windfall. Several billion dollars of the Senate’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan are likely to be directed towards national parks, which contain 12,500 miles of roads, 1,700 road bridges, and 70 road tunnels. President Biden hopes to direct $10 billion in funding toward the Civilian Climate Corps during his presidency. A climate-related disaster may be prevented or prepared for with that information. By 2030, the president wants to conserve thirty percent of all land and waters in the United States. This is 3.4 percent of the country’s total landmass, or 84.6 million acres, managed by the NPS.

Planning for and directing these funds in the best way possible relies on an intact and full leadership structure. Sams may succeed in getting Senate confirmation, but what are the chances?

Jarvis sees no major issues with him. The odds aren’t in his favor.”

In his memoir, Jarvis recounts the delay caused by Republican senators in the confirmation process in 2009. Although the senators appeared not to have an issue with him, he explains that the confirmation was used to extract unrelated concessions from Obama.

According to him, confirmations are more problematic the later they occur in an administration. Now that the Biden administration has completed 100 days, senators are turning their attention to the midterm elections in 2022, and engaging in hearings to gain airtime and sound bites.

Sams’ confirmation hearings will likely be high on the Senate’s priority list when it returns from its summer break on September 15. Despite frustrating many of the Biden administration’s priorities, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has said he wants “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.

Before the year is out, we hope to see the process completed. The debate will take place in the context of the upcoming federal budget, and the sweeping spending packages Democrats plan to push through budget reconciliation. This circumvents Republican senators’ ability to filibuster, so it’s likely they will seek out other ways to stymie Democratic agendas.

Sams will have to undergo a series of difficult tests from the very beginning if he passes. Any future director of the Park Service should “re-authorize Park Service staff to do their jobs,” re-establishing a culture and mission that can survive a hypothetical future Republican administration, Jarvis says. A record amount of cash will be available to him, but he must organize it so that it does more than just solve current problems. The park system needs to be able to withstand new challenges in an increasingly challenging world. Sams, or any other future director, will have a huge impact on our nation’s ability to fight climate change. Suddenly, the Park Service is more important than ever; it’s not the Park Service Jarvis left behind.

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