Sams Takes Job on Regional Council
by Antonio Sierra
MISSION -- A longtime administrator with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation has been tapped for a job with broad influence over regional energy and environmental conservation. But an even bigger job could be in store for him.
The CTUIR announced on Monday, March 8, that Chuck Sams was leaving his role as the interim executive director of the Tribes to fill a seat on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Gov. Kate Brown appointed him to the council, but she's also backing him for another appointment: a job in the Biden administration as the director of the National Parks Service.
A surprising nomination
According to Sams, 50, the offer for his latest job came out of the blue.
A few weeks ago, Sams was playing soccer with his young daughter when his phone rang. He didn't recognize the number so he let it go to voicemail. When he played the message, his daughter recognized the governor's voice.
"You might want to give her a call back, Dad," she told her father.
When he connected with Brown and she offered him a seat on the council, he was surprised. The pair had talked about appointments to other bodies in the past, but the Northwest Power and Conservation Council wasn't one of them.
But for Sams, the offer had appeal.
Between stints in tribal government, Sams was the director for several energy and environmentally focused nonprofits, including the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, the Earth Conservation Corps and the Community Energy Project.
Sams, an enrolled member of the CTUIR, climbed the ladder in tribal government after returning home in 2012, culminating in a second stint as interim executive director when Ted Wright resigned in late 2020. Despite the opportunity, Sams quickly told the CTUIR Board of Trustees that he would not consider the job on a permanent basis.
Sams said he was already starting to think about other opportunities outside tribal government, including a return to the work he has done for the better part of two decades.
Brown and Sams had previously held talks over him joining the Oregon Public Utilities Commission, but it never turned into a nomination. With an offer now in hand, Sams took it.
Established in 1980, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council is responsible for devising long-term planning for the Columbia Basin, taking both energy and conservation needs into account. Sams is joining an eight-person council with representation from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. A full-time job, each council member earns $120,000 per year.
Sams said he will become the only enrolled tribal member on the board and only the second American Indian in the council's 30-year history.
The CTUIR has often joined the other Tribes of the Columbia Plateau in trying to protect the river's salmon from the adverse effects of the river's hydroelectric system.
When asked for comment, the governor's office mentioned their work in appointing him to the council and recommending him to a job with national implications.
"The governor counts herself as one of the many Oregonians who has learned so much from him about the history and cultures of the Indigenous and Tribal peoples who have lived in Oregon since time immemorial," Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown, said. "In December, she wrote a letter recommending him to lead the National Park Service, and she is extremely pleased for his commitment to now serve on the NWPC."
A ringing endorsement
In a letter dated Dec. 17, Brown was effusive in her praise for Sams.
Addressed to Joe Biden, Brown's letter ran through Sams' qualifications and qualities before sharing her vision for the National Parks Service under Sams' leadership.
"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. "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."
If appointed to the position, 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.
An announcement on the next parks director isn't expected until the Senate confirms Deb Haaland to lead the U.S. Department of Interior, which manages the national parks system. A congresswoman from New Mexico and an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, Haaland is poised to become the Interior's first American Indian secretary.
Sams said he was honored by Brown's recommendation, but he added that he will also be pleased to stay in the Northwest and serve on the council if he doesn't get the parks director position.
Although the council's offices are in Portland, Sams said he intends to stay at his residence on the Umatilla Indian Reservation and work remotely.
Sams' last day in tribal government came on Friday, March 12, and he left with some warm words from one of his former bosses.
"I can't thank Chuck enough for his service to the Tribe," Kat Brigham, chair of the CTUIR Board of Trustees, said in a statement. "We are sad to see him go, but happy that he has received such a prestigious appointment from Gov. Brown. We know that he will work for the benefit of the entire region. We wish him nothing but the best."
Both Brigham and Sams gave a vote of confidence to Paul Rabb, who took over for Sams as the Tribes' interim executive director. The CTUIR expects to make a permanent selection this summer.
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