Chuck Sams

Chuck Sams

President Joe Biden nominated Chuck Sams, a longtime tribal leader from Oregon, as National Parks Service Director.

 The 50-year-old Sams, a former administrator of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, is the president's choice to run the service, which oversees a system that attracts 318 million visitors every year. 

If approved by the U.S. Senate, Sams would be the first Native American to serve as National Parks Director. He is an enrolled member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, which are part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon. He and his wife, Lori Sams, and their four children live there.

Sams would be the service’s first full-time director since the Obama administration. Former President Donald Trump nominated a candidate, but he was never confirmed by the Senate, and the agency has been overseen by a series of acting directors for the past four years.

The National Park Service, established in 1916, includes 63 National Parks, such as Crater Lake, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon parks.

In all, the service administers 85 million acres at 423 sites in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa.

The service has over 12,000 employees. President Biden's proposed budget calls for $3.5 billion for the National Park Service.

Sams will report to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a former New Mexico congresswoman and the first Native American to hold the position.

Gov. Kate Brown praised the selection, saying Sams would be an excellent steward of the gems of America's natural beauty.

"Today is a proud day for Oregon. 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," Brown said. "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." 

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, had also endorsed Sams and said he was happy that Biden would submit Sams' nomination.

“I called my friend Chuck Sams today to congratulate him for earning this historic nomination for Tribal communities," Wyden said. "I very much look forward to working with him in his new role to help the National Park Service here in Oregon and throughout our country."

The Trust for Public Lands, a conservation group based in Washington, D.C., said Sams would would be a good steward of the nation's prime properties.

CEO, Diane Regas, on the nomination and please let me know if you have questions about his work with TPL or any of our current work.
“Chuck Sams is a visionary conservation leader with a deep demonstrated commitment to natural and cultural resources and the communities that depend on them," said Diane Regas, the group's CEO. "His positive focus on land restoration, species protection, youth programs, and access — give him a uniquely valuable perspective on America’s irreplaceable public lands."

Sams was chosen earlier this year by Brown as one of Oregon's two representatives to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. He previously held positions with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, including executive and deputy executive director, communications director, and environmental health and safety officer/planner. He's a veteran of the U.S. Navy.

Sams holds 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's taught at Georgetown University and Whitman College. He sit on the boards of the Oregon Cultural Trust and environmentally-oriented Gray Family Foundation.

Sams climbed the ladder in tribal government after returning home in 2012, culminating in a second stint as interim executive director in late 2020. Despite the opportunity, Sams told the board he did not want to be considered as the permanent person in the position.

Sams said he was already starting to think about other opportunities outside tribal government prior to his appointment to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Sams is the only enrolled tribal member on the power council and only the second Native American  in the council’s 30-year-history. 

Sams' appointment was endorsed by Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Brown. Biden had not yet taken office in January when Brown wrote him suggesting Sams for the National Park Service position.

“During your administration, I envision students — both young and old, tribal and nontribal alike — visiting Yellowstone, Arches, Mesa Verde or Oregon’s Crater Lake, and hearing the stories of our past and present, including the important stories of the tribal peoples who have inhabited these special places,” she wrote to the president. “Chuck is a consummate storyteller, and has the skill set and passion to inspire the dedicated staff of the NPS 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.”

Sams’ last day in tribal government was March 12. 

Antonio Sierra is a reporter with the East Oregonian.

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