Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III
Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III. Photo: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D)
Tribal citizen nominated to lead National Park Service for first time in history
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
Indianz.Com

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Joe Biden is once again making history with his choice to lead the National Park Service, the federal agency that oversees millions of acres of ancestral tribal territories and treaty lands.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation who has worked in land management and natural resource fields for decades, would be the first Native person to serve as director of the NPS, which is part of the Department of the Interior. His nomination was announced by the White House on Wednesday.

“The diverse experience that Chuck brings to the National Park Service will be an incredible asset as we work to conserve and protect our national parks to make them more accessible for everyone,” said Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to lead Interior and the first Native person in a presidential cabinet.

“I look forward to working with him to welcome Americans from every corner of our country into our national park system. The outdoors are for everyone, and we have an obligation to protect them for generations to come,” Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, said in a news release.

Sams, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, has served in a variety of roles for his tribal nation. He was hired as Deputy Executive Director for the tribe last fall and previously worked as Executive Director for the Umatilla Tribal Community Foundation, which the tribe formed to address needs on the reservation in Oregon.

Sams also has experience in the non-profit sector. He served as President and Chief Executive Officer for the Indian Country Conservancy, National Director of the Tribal and Native Lands Program for the Trust for Public Land, Executive Director for the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, Executive Director for the Community Energy Project, and President and Chief Executive Officer for the Earth Conservation Corps.

His work extends to state government as well. He’s currently on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, to which he was appointed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), whose office said his ancestry includes Cayuse, Walla Walla, Cocopah and Yankton Sioux.

“Today is a proud day for Oregon,” Brown said in a statement. “Chuck Sams is among Oregon’s finest, and I can’t think of a better person for the important role of National Park Service Director. I have worked closely with Chuck for many years, and have witnessed firsthand his unparalleled devotion and service to his tribe, our state, and our nation.”

“Perhaps most importantly, Chuck is a passionate student and teacher of the history and culture of our lands and our people,” Brown continued. “I am excited that our entire nation has the opportunity to embark on a journey of learning and discovery with the assistance of a National Park Service under his direction. Chuck is a consummate storyteller and has the skill set and passion to inspire the dedicated staff of the National Park Service to tell those stories, and to find new and innovative ways to make our parks accessible to all Americans, while conserving and preserving those lands.”

Praise is also coming from the non-profit Trust for Public Land, where Sams previously worked. CEO Diane Regas called him an “outstanding” choice for a federal agency that was somewhat neglected during the prior administration.

“Chuck Sams is a visionary conservation leader with a deep demonstrated commitment to natural and cultural resources and the communities that depend on them,” Regas said in a statement. “His broad experience — including his leadership roles serving the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, his tremendous prior conservation achievements as director of the Trust for Public Land’s Tribal Lands Program, and his positive focus on land restoration, species protection, youth programs, and access — give him a uniquely valuable perspective on America’s irreplaceable public lands.”

“We believe he will be an outstanding director of the National Park Service, and we applaud the Biden administration for its intent to nominate him to that critical position,” added Regas.

The National Park Service has gone without a permanent director since the last month of the Barack Obama administration in January 2017. Republican former president Donald Trump failed to nominate someone to run the agency, which saw three “acting” leaders during his four years in office.

Without someone in charge at the NPS, tribes saw a retreat of some of the gains made during the Obama era. One of the biggest setbacks occurred when Trump, in his first year of office, dramatically reduced the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah at the insistence of Republican politicians and non-Indian opponents.

In her first out-of-state trip as Secretary of the Interior, Haaland traveled to Utah in April to discuss the future of the monument with tribal, state and local officials. According to leaders of the Navajo Nation, she has since recommended that the original boundaries of Bears Ears be restored. Final action has not been announced by the White House.

“The Navajo Nation continues to work with the White House and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to convey our support of the full restoration and expansion of the Bears Ears National Monument to 1.9 million acres,” President Jonathan Nez said in his State of the Nation address last month. “We’ve met with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, White House officials, Secretary Haaland, and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland to support the position of all tribes in this matter.”

Other major issues include tribal co-management of ancestral and treaty lands, energy development on and near sacred sites managed by the federal government and the return of ancestral remains and cultural property under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The latter program is part of the NPS, whose regulations are being revised by the Biden administration in consultation with Indian Country.

As with a number of other Interior nominees, Sams will have to go before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for his confirmation hearing. The Senate is controlled by Democrats, some of whom are already welcoming the announcement from the White House.

“Congrats to my friend Chuck Sams from the @1855CTUIR for earning this historic nomination for Tribal communities,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) said in a post on social media on Wednesday. “Looking forward to working with him in his new role to help the @NatlParkService here in Oregon and throughout our country.”

Biographical information from the White House follows:

Charles F. Sams III currently serves as a Council Member to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, as appointed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown. Sams has worked in state and tribal governments and the non- profit natural resource and conservation management fields for over 25 years. Previous roles include Deputy Executive Director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), Communications Director for the CTUIR, Environmental Health and Safety Officer/Planner in the Tribal Planning Office for the CTUIR, President/Chief Executive Officer of Indian Country Conservancy, Executive Director for the Umatilla Tribal Community Foundation, National Director of the Tribal & Native Lands Program for the Trust for Public Land, Executive Director for the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, Executive Director for the Community Energy Project and President/Chief Executive Officer for the Earth Conservation Corps. He is also a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Whitman College.

Sams holds a bachelor of science 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 veteran of the U.S. Navy and currently serves on the boards of the Oregon Cultural Trust and Gray Family Foundation. Chuck is an enrolled member, Cayuse and Walla Walla, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, where also he and his wife, Lori Sams, live with their four children.