National parks leader Sams visits home state, discusses tribal co-management of lands

By April Ehrlich (OPB)
March 18, 2022 12 p.m.

The Oregonian and Umatilla tribal member says Native co-management can help restore public lands.

This week was National Park Service Director Chuck Sams’ first trip back home to the Pacific Northwest since he was sworn in as the first Native American to lead the public lands agency.

Sams’ weeklong tour included a visit to Bend, where he attended the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism, then weaved through Crater Lake, where he met with park leaders. His trip wrapped up Thursday with a tour of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Washington state. The former military base and fur-trading site is undergoing a $15 million renovation funded by the Great American Outdoors Act of 2020.

A man with a salt-and-pepper goatee and wearing a ranger's outfit speaks at a podium in front of a chain-link fence, where there is a construction site.

National Parks Service Director Chuck Sams speaks at the Fort Vancouver Historic Site on Thursday. This was Sams' first trip back home to the Pacific Northwest since he was sworn in as the first Native American to lead the public lands agency.

April Ehrlich / OPB

Since his swearing in, Sams has advocated for tribal co-management of federal lands. During his tour, he noted that the Fort Vancouver park works closely with local tribes, making it one of many examples in the Pacific Northwest where state and federal agencies successfully collaborate with sovereign nations.

“We have a really great opportunity to bring in traditional ecological knowledge, set up cooperative agreements and even do some co-management, especially on the flora and fauna,” Sams said.


Sams is Cayuse and Walla Walla. He’s enrolled with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Northeast Oregon, where he grew up. He has a long history of civic leadership in state and tribal government; he recently served as Gov. Kate Brown’s appointee to the Pacific Northwest Power and Conservation Council, and was previously the executive director for the Umatilla tribe.

Sams said Native co-management is fundamental to restoring lands to their healthier, pre-colonial conditions, because tribes have a deep understanding of native plants and animal species.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship, and I think it’s important that we figure out how we co-manage those together to ensure those species not just survive, but they actually thrive on the landscape,” Sams said.

Last week Sams testified in support of Native co-management at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing. He cited four parks that are currently co-managed by tribal governments: Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Glacier Bay National Park, Grand Portage National Monument and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Some policymakers at the hearing said they were worried that tribal co-management would interfere with domestic oil production. Sams said that shouldn’t be a concern.

“We don’t deal with a lot of oil and gas leasing, and that’s not within the realm of the National Park Service,” Sams told OPB. “I understood their concerns that they’re bringing forward, but it’s not necessarily a co-management issue as it relates to what we do with parks and people.”

The rehabilitation work at Fort Vancouver is one of about 120 national parks projects that received Outdoors Act funding last year. The project will rehabilitate the fort’s 33,000 square-foot double-infantry barracks, which were constructed in 1907.

Park staff said construction will focus on making the building more accessible and energy efficient, while preserving many of its historic features, like its covered porches and pressed-tin ceilings. Some maintenance costs will be leveraged by leasing rooms as office space. Construction is slated to end next spring.