Native American Charles Sams to direct National Park Service | Georgiana Vines

The National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over the most visited park in the country, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, has a director confirmed by the U.S. Senate for the first time in nearly five years.

Charles “Chuck” Sams, the first Native American to head the NPS in the agency’s 105-year history, has decades of experience in land management. He is an enrolled member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He lives on the reservation in Oregon with his wife and their four children.

Chuck Sams
Chuck Sams

The Senate approved Sams in a voice vote on Nov. 18, which means no senator objected. Such votes have been rare for nominations by President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the Senate with a 50-50 split. The official record shows Sams succeeded Jonathan Jarvis, who retired in January 2017. The NPS had a series of acting directors during the presidency of Donald Trump and Biden’s first 10 months.

The NPS is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior, led by Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna. She is the first confirmed Native American cabinet secretary.

When Biden was first elected president, Cassius Cash, GSMNP superintendent, was one of three persons considered by some political insiders as a possible director of the National Park Service. Sams’ nomination came later.

Sams has been a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in his state. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Concordia University-Portland and a master of legal studies in Indigenous Peoples Law from the University of Oklahoma. He is a U.S. Navy veteran.

The Associated Press and other national news reporting services said that Sams is interested in working with tribal leaders to use Native eco-stewardship practices, such as traditional burns to manage wildfire threats.

He also is likely to be interested in an agreement that allows the gathering of sochan, or a green-headed cone flower, for traditional purposes between the GSMNP and the Eastern Band of Cherokees, said Vernon C. “Tommy” Gilbert, a retired long-time chief naturalist for the NPS, who lives in Knoxville. The agreement, which Gilbert helped develop, was signed in March 2016.

An agreement between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Eastern Band of Cherokees allows for the gathering of sochan, also known as a green-headed coneflower, for traditional purposes.
An agreement between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Eastern Band of Cherokees allows for the gathering of sochan, also known as a green-headed coneflower, for traditional purposes.

The Smoky Park said at the time that the park contains a rich abundance of consumable botanicals and fungi that continue to be an important component of Cherokee traditional diet and culture. The Cherokee have a well-defined history of sustainably harvesting edible plants through the application of traditional ecological knowledge, the park said.

“The reason I proposed this kind of program is that I thought the NPS agreement with Indian tribes about collecting some species in the tribe traditional territories could be the incentive to start a cooperative program among agencies and jurisdictions (such as GRSM region) that would secure many more species and make them available for use through … conservation strategies. If this were done on a large scale in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (600+ sites in 129 countries), then we make a significant contribution in conserving the natural resources that save us,” Gilbert said.

Smoky Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said the Smokies was one of the first parks nationally to enter into a gathering agreement with a tribal community.

She said 2021 was the third year for Cherokees to harvest sochan under the agreement. A report by the park in November said the 2019 season was abbreviated with the government shutdown, due to COVID-19, and the 2020 season was “somewhat negatively impacted” by the pandemic. In 2021, 16 harvests were conducted. Overall, 32 harvests were done, all in North Carolina, with 75 percent in the Smokemont area in a floodplain immediately adjacent to the Smokemont riding stables. The harvests are monitored by park personnel.

In a related development, Cash is presently serving as acting director of the Southeast region of the NPS for 120 days, or until a director is named. Soehn said Cash is doing the job virtually from Gatlinburg as the entire regional office is operating virtually.

Alan Sumeriski, the deputy superintendent, is acting superintendent during this period.

UPDATE ON SESSIONS JUDGE: Knox County General Sessions Judge Geoffrey Emery is spending his time outside the courtroom getting rid of books accumulated over a lifetime of public service, including 35 years on the bench.

What are the books? Books, like the Tennessee Blue Book, issued every two years, that has details on how the state operates and elected and appointed officials. Those he’s giving to interns who are interested, the Republican said.

“I’m not taking anything that doesn’t belong to me. I look at my place and I can see the walls now,” he said Friday. Soon about the only items left in his office at the City- County Building will be family pictures, which he’ll take out by his last day, Dec. 31.

County Commission will honor Emery at 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 20, in the main assembly room of the City-County Building. Emery said his staff estimates he has disposed of about 500,000 cases (criminal and civil) during his tenure. He was the county’s first-time assistant law director.

Emery is retiring in part because of heart and ear problems, he said. He had a cardiac arrest two years ago at the end of the day. “What scared me about that it was right after we had closed work. It was around Easter. I was getting ready to get up and the next thing I remember I was in the hospital,” he said.

He plans to spend time with his family and doing volunteer work at his church, First Presbyterian Church.

Knox County Commission appointed Republican Judd Davis, an assistant district attorney, to succeed Emery at a special meeting Tuesday in a 9-2 party line vote over Democrat Sarah Keith, also an assistant district attorney.

Davis’ name is Judson Kyle and he signed a treasurer’s report for the office as Judson K. although the paperwork shows he’s to be on the ballot as Judd Davis. But the Kyle name is important since he is the son of lawyer Jimmy Kyle Davis, who has served as a Knox County legislator and sessions court judge.

The appointment is expected to give Davis an edge as an incumbent in next year’s elections, when all judges have to seek election or re-election.

OATH TAKING: Knoxville City Council members re-elected on Nov. 2 will be sworn in for a four-year term at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 18, at the Knoxville Convention Center lecture hall. Immediately following, the council will have a special meeting to elect a vice mayor, Beer Board chairman and Knoxville Transportation Authority representative.

The following members were re-elected: 1st District, Tommy Smith; 2nd District, Andrew Roberto; 3rd District, Seema Singh; 4th District, Lauren Rider, and 6th District, Gwen McKenzie. McKenzie is the current vice mayor; Roberto, Beer Board chairman, and Councilperson Amelia Parker, KTA representative.

Georgiana Vines is a retired News Sentinel associate editor. She may be reached at gvpolitics@hotmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Native American Charles Sams to direct National Park Service | Vines