Working With Tribes To Co-Steward National Parks : Short Wave In the final episode of Short Wave's Summer Road Trip series exploring the science happening in national parks and public lands, Aaron talks to National Park Service Director Charles Sams, who recently issued new policy guidance to strengthen the ways the park service collaborates with American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes, the Native Hawaiian Community, and other indigenous peoples. It's part of a push across the federal government to increase the level of tribal co-stewardship over public lands. Aaron talks with Sams, the first Tribal citizen to head the agency, about how he hopes this will change the way parks are managed, how the parks are already incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and what national parkland meant to him growing up as a member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon.

Listen to more episodes about all the amazing research taking place on public lands, where we hike up sky islands and crawl into caves in search of fantastical creatures, by visiting the series website:

Working With Tribes To Co-Steward National Parks

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JULIAN ROQUE: Hi. This is Julian Roque, Teacher Ranger Teacher at the Gila Cliff Dwellings national monument in New Mexico. You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


Hey, SHORT WAVErs. Today marks the last day of summer, which means we are at the end of our Summer Road Trip series. We've crawled into caves. We have hiked up sky islands. We have listened to volcanoes and the sound of silence. We've explored all sorts of amazing research taking place in our national parks and public lands, and we wanted to end with something big.

CHUCK SAMS: Well, good day. My name is Chuck Sams. I'm the National Park Service director of the United States.

SCOTT: So we called up the head of the Park Service himself because there is some big news afoot. On September 13, Chuck Sams issued a policy to strengthen the ways the Park Service collaborates with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, with the Native Hawaiian community and with other Indigenous peoples.

SAMS: The charge under treaties - the treaty tribes - which I come from one - is that the federal government must consult with the tribe. We used to call it drive-by consulting, which means we either got a letter or we got a phone call. And, you know, we had no real say about what was going to happen to lands that we have rights to. And what this does then - it charges our leadership, it charges our field staff to go out and meet tribes where they're at. Don't expect them to come into the park or to go through the tribal council. Go to tribal reservations and visit with them and talk with them one-on-one about how we are implementing our management plans within the park. And then that provides a seat at that table to also help in figuring out how we're going to better manage these spaces and lands.

SCOTT: The practice is called co-stewardship. And he says this kind of collaboration is even more urgent in the face of climate change.

SAMS: I mean, we look at the flooding that has happened in Yellowstone. We're looking at the fires out West. Tribes have seen these things for over 10,000 years. They also know the resiliency and adaptation that one needs to do in order to weather this type of thing. Also, how do we going to combat it? They now can bring that traditional ecological knowledge to the table to help explain some of what is happening and how we can counter that.

SCOTT: Today on the show, we talk with Chuck Sams, the very first Native American director of the National Park Service, about what it means for the agency to commit to co-stewarding federal lands and water with tribes, what it means for the science that takes place there and his dreams for the future. I'm Aaron Scott, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science park-cast from NPR.


SCOTT: To start, I would love it if you'd tell us a little bit about your own relationship to national parks and public lands, growing up out here in the West.

SAMS: You know, Aaron, I grew up in eastern Oregon on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, not far from Whitman Mission. And the story that was told by the National Park Service for so long at Whitman Mission was one of a massacre of Dr. Marcus Whitman and his family. It was really told from one side and not from the tribe side. The land that Dr. Whitman was on was Cayuse land that he was granted access to. And the real story, for us, was about him foregoing his promises that he made to the Cayuse people. And back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the National Park Service started working with the Umatilla Tribe to retell the story so that both stories were told.

I'm very proud today to go there and taking my family there because when I went there as, like, a fourth or fifth grader, it really only told the non-Indian side. And the National Park Service has really grown to tell multiple stories in the parks. And so when I think about my travels, either down to Fossil Beds in John Day or out to the coast to look at Lewis and Clark's site at Fort Astoria, you recognize that there are so many different stories to tell. And it doesn't diminish from any story. It just makes it much more richer in our fabric as a nation.

SCOTT: So on September 13, you issued new guidance for the National Park Service to strengthen tribal co-stewardship of national park lands and waters. It's part of a federal governmentwide change across departments of Interior, Agriculture - spurred by orders from Secretaries Haaland and Vilsack. I know the Park Service already has about 80 co-stewardship agreements set up, including four parks and monuments that are co-managed by tribes, which is, like, a higher level of legal partnership. But would you pick maybe a couple of your favorites and describe how they work and how they might serve as models for future relationships?

SAMS: Sure. You know, I took - earlier this summer, I was in Acadia National Park and watching and working with the tribes, the Wabanaki people, on how they do sweetgrass harvesting on the national park itself. Our agreement for a better understanding of the use of traditional ecological knowledge at Acadia not only allows and ensures that tribes have access to a traditional plant, but also that reciprocating relationship that they're teaching the National Park Service and the surrounding community about how - not to just harvesting, but how we will also try to go back in and do the replanting, and that they have a relationship that has dated since time immemorial. We're using some of the traditional ecological knowledge out at Yosemite in how we're doing firefighting, in which we have been doing prescribed burns and back burns to clear out underbrush, thus allowing better growth of trees, but also making sure that there's resiliency in some of the Redwood forest, especially the older trees, so that they're not as susceptible to fire damage.

And then most recently, I was just out at Grand Canyon National Park, and there were 11 tribes there discussing their relationship with the big river, the Colorado, in the bottom of the canyon and then, of course, both the flora and fauna along the ridges and inland. And the park there is doing a wonderful job of agreements with the tribe about protection of both flora and fauna, but also about opportunities and economic development and how we can better manage those spaces, not, again, just for ourselves, but for future generations.

SCOTT: Can you talk a little bit about how traditional ecological knowledge is being incorporated into the scientific research that is taking place by the federal government and researchers associated with it?

SAMS: Absolutely. You know, the basis of all science is observation. So who better than the people that have lived here for at least 10,000 years, who have been observing the climate, have been observing the waters conserving air, conserving both flora and fauna to help talk about what those species looked like. So you take those thousands of years of observation and scientific practice with tribal members and you bring that to the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to talk about those observations so that they can be integrated and how we better manage the species as a whole.

You know, President Biden and Secretary Haaland have made it very clear that we must do a whole-government approach to these environmental systems and how we're working with them. It's the only way we're going to ensure the resiliency with climate change happening across the United States.

SCOTT: If I could ask you to put on some, like, time binoculars that allows you to peer 20 years into the future, what do things look like for how the management of national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, other public lands - what is your dream for how that is changed?

SAMS: My dream is that we're not so species-focused. You know, the Endangered Species Act has done really good things. It's really done some great work for us to be able to bring back the American bald eagle, to bring back wolves, to work on bears, because when we bring those species back, we see things like a rise in fisheries. We see a rise in traditional plants coming back in place. These are all part of a very complicated, diverse system that we must work on together if we're going to see true recovery and we're going to see positive results. I think this is a step in that direction.

SCOTT: All national parks are located on Indigenous ancestral lands, and most parks carry a history of violently removing tribes from that land and, for a long time, barring them from returning. How far do you think this shift in policy can go to heal some of those wounds?

SAMS: I think it can go a long way. The very early American conservations - Thoreau and "Walden" - had talked about setting aside lands in which the American Indian would work and live in harmony with the flora and fauna. Somehow, by the time we got into modern conservation, by the 1880s and going forward, it was about the removal of Indians from the landscape. There comes a disconnect of not understanding that Native people have been managing these spaces for thousands of years. They managed fire. They managed plants. They managed animals, no different than what we do now with states and federal government. And so I see this as finally moving in that direction of recognizing the stewardship the tribes have played, the important part they've played, because we've seen these declines. These declines have been caused by man.

SCOTT: And, I mean, it seems a lot of the parks were established with this idea that they were wilderness. They were wild places, untouched by humans. And yet my understanding is there's not really a term for wilderness in a lot of the Native languages in this continent.

SAMS: No, I feel very fortunate. In my 30-year career, I've been to well over 250 reservations and working with a lot of tribes. And that's usually one of the first questions I ask is, do you have a word for wilderness? And the vast majority of them say no. What they have a word for is home because that is their home. That's what provides them everything that they need, not just for sustenance and survival, but to thrive.

SCOTT: You had talked about - historically, consultation was kind of drive-by consultation, that, you know, it's written in that you shall consult, that tribes should have a voice in things. And yet it's oftentimes kind of promises that don't ring true or don't actually have any teeth or attention on the ground. How is this going to be different?

SAMS: You know, every year, we do and are charged with reporting out on our consultation to the American people and to the administration. We're going to start putting in some of these metrics on how we're doing collaboratively. What are we doing - annual funding agreements. How are we supporting capacity for tribes to be able to be at the table? And, you know, on the (inaudible) the level, that will also be in people's evaluations. While I am so fortunate to be able to lead the organization, my real job is to ensure that they have those resources to include funds, direction, training and support.

And so this particular memo, for me, really tries to lay all of that out. There may be gaps. We're going to find out where those gaps are. We're going to help fill them in. But what I've seen across the board, as I've been out to over 50 parks in the last seven months, is a hunger by National Park Service staff and by National Park Service leadership to work with tribes and have them at that table because they are also finding out that they're having transformational relationships with the community around them.

SCOTT: Since we are a science show, I'm just curious if there's anything we haven't talked about from kind of the science angle of this or anything that delights you when you think about the science going on in the parks.

SAMS: You know, I spent a good portion of my career doing salmon and watershed restoration in the Pacific Northwest. And I've also watched that change over the years, in working with the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, when they started to finally embrace traditional ecological knowledge by the river tribes of the Columbia River. And they started practicing and using our recovery methods for salmon and for other species - plant species - along the (inaudible) waterways. And when we got to there, it becomes less of a fight and more of an understanding that we're all in this together.

And so science is a common denominator in the human species. It's just understanding people observe in different ways and have different ways of understanding. But when you bring those all to the table, you get a better understanding, and I think a much more holistic understanding, of science and your natural environment. And so that's what excites me about this, is that we're bringing traditional ecological knowledge, which is science, and marrying it with Western science only to make things better for our future.

SCOTT: Director Chuck Sams, it has been just an utter delight to talk with you. Thank you so much for your time.

SAMS: Thank you, Aaron. It's been my pleasure also.


SCOTT: If you're interested in more stories about all the cool science happening in our public lands, check out the rest of the episodes in our Summer Road Trip series. We have a link in the show notes.

This episode was produced by Berly McCoy, edited and fact-checked by Gisele Grayson. The audio engineer was Gilly Moon. Beth Donovan is our senior director, and Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Aaron Scott. Thank you, as always, for listening to SHORT WAVE.


Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.