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BY CHERRY PAYNE / RETIRED NATIONAL PARK SERVICE SUPERINTENDENT, SANTA FE RESIDENT

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The National Park Service (NPS) has been without a Senate-confirmed director for over four years. In the long history of the agency, this has never happened. And this lack of steady leadership has contributed to a number of problems, including low employee morale.

The agency has also been underfunded for decades, and the previous administration – rather than supporting the 105-year-old mission of the NPS – used parks to score political points. Now, the NPS is dealing with record-breaking crowds in the middle of an ongoing pandemic. At the same time, we are facing dramatic losses of wildlands and waterways, which affect biodiversity and contribute to the looming climate crisis that impacts us all.

I spent 34 years as a national park ranger, helping to protect special places that tell America’s stories, including sites here in New Mexico. I am well-aware of the challenges facing the NPS workforce as it strives to balance the protection of our irreplaceable natural and cultural resources, while ensuring people connect to these treasured spaces through a positive visitor experience.

There is much work to be done to ensure the protection of our parks, and it won’t be quick or easy. Luckily, we have a strong nominee to serve as the 19th director of the NPS; I believe that Charles Sams is the right person to lead the National Park Service.

The Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative, which lays out a 10-year goal of conserving and safeguarding 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 – 30×30 – provides us with an excellent road map for success. This plan will make our nation more climate-resilient, increase access to our national parks and public lands, and ensure conservation efforts are guided by sound science.

Conserving more lands, and increasing access to parks and public lands will enhance the quality of life for Americans by providing more leisure opportunities in healthy landscapes, and well-protected historical and cultural sites. Just last month, President Biden drew praise for restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments after they were stripped of their protections by the previous administration. Through the Antiquities Act, the president is empowered to designate more national monuments, and protect public landscapes and waterways, an authority that can help get us to our 30×30 goals.

During his confirmation hearing, Sams spoke about his professional experience in natural resource and conservation management. His work with local, regional and national organizations that conserve fish, wildlife and common spaces of land demonstrates a commitment to engagement and collaboration, critical components to achieve success as the National Park Service director. He will be able to help make the NPS a leader in reaching the goals laid out in the America the Beautiful plan.

But Sams also talked about the qualities of a good leader, and the importance of valuing people and listening to staff. These attributes will help him not only to fulfill the promise of safeguarding more public lands, but also to tackle the issue of morale within the NPS by serving as an advocate for an agency in need of a long-term leader.

Protecting our national parks and public lands is critical to the future of our country and the well-being of the American people. We can make the America the Beautiful initiative a reality by reinvigorating the NPS as a leader in natural and cultural resources preservation. After all, the stories NPS sites tell are the stories of our common American heritage. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, including Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., has voted to advance the nomination of Sams as NPS director to the Senate floor. Now, I urge the Senate to move swiftly to confirm Sams as the 19th director of the National Park Service and let him get to work.

Cherry Payne retired as Superintendent of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in 2010. Prior to that assignment, she worked at Everglades National Park, Yosemite National Park, Grand Teton National Park, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and, here in New Mexico, on the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.