Ode to Sam: A Legacy of Partnership for Sam Schuchat’s 20 Years at the Coastal Conservancy

June 14, 2021
Sam Schuchat speaking at Dutch Slough
Coastal Conservancy Executive Officer Sam Schuchat speaks at a the groundbreaking ceremony for a restoration project at Dutch Slough in 2018. (Photo courtesy State Coastal Conservancy)

Ride your bike almost anywhere on the San Francisco Bay Trail and it’s likely that you’ll pass wetlands that are protecting communities against sea-level rise and sequestering carbon. Chances are that the support for the protection and restoration of these critical wetlands is attributable to the State Coastal Conservancy (SCC). Watch a group of kids explore a beach for the first time and it’s possible that they’re there because of the SCC. Walk by a creek in a Bay Area redwood forest, and there’s a good chance that the SCC is supporting efforts to improve the forest’s health and wildfire resilience.

Remember, they are an exotic species in the Western United States, and are rapidly increasing their geographic range and range of habitats. Are they outcompeting or excluding native species in the process? How would we know? We have done almost nothing to monitor changes in the assemblage of mushroom species in areas before and and after the incursion of death caps.

The author is the Executive Director of Together Bay Area, a regional coalition of nonprofits, public agencies, and Indigenous Tribes working together for climate resilient lands.

One reason for the SCC’s impactful breadth and depth is Sam Schuchat. Sam has served as the Executive Officer of the SCC since July 2001. Before he retires later this month, I want to take a moment – especially in the pandemic era when time is so slippery – to honor and acknowledge Sam before he rides his recumbent bike into the next chapter of his life. 

Over the past 20 years, Sam has led the SCC through the rise of the internet and social media, a recession, and the proliferation of smart phones. When he started as Executive Officer, climate change was only discussed in academic circles and by former Vice President Al Gore and author Bill McKibben (thankfully this has changed dramatically since then). Since 2001, Sam and the SCC have:

  • Served four California governors and five Natural Resources secretaries
  • Distributed approximately $1.3 billion through voter-approved Propositions 12, 40, 50, 84, 1, and 68
  • Established the agency’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) guidelines
  • Established the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority and the placement of Measure AA on the ballot in the Bay Area
  • Established the Explore the Coast program which has provided 220 grants to date, enabling thousands and thousands of people to visit the coast, many for the first time
  • Established the Climate Ready program, supporting public agencies and nonprofits in addressing climate change through nature-based adaptation
  • And expanded the scope of the SCC to address known challenges like sea level rise as well as emergent threats like catastrophic wildfires.  
Sam Schuchat in August 2020
Sam Schuchat (with white mask) speaks with reporters about climate change with smoky skies from the lightning fires of August 2020. (Photo courtesy State Coastal Conservancy)

All of this has translated into direct impact on the ground. Sam and his team at the SCC are collaborative and essential partners for TOGETHER Bay Area members. Our 69 members are working collectively for climate resilience and equity in a variety of ways. Some examples of projects supported by the SCC include: 

  • Trust for Public Land’s partnership with the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians and the creation of the Kashia Coastal Reserve, returning land to the Tribe for the first time in hundreds of years.
  • Brown Girl Surf’s Surf Sister Saturdays which created a safe, inviting, and accessible space for girls and women of color to connect with the ocean, the sport of surfing, and each other. 
  • Amah Mutsun Land Trust’s coastal stewardship summer camp for Native American youth.
  • San Mateo Resource Conservation District’s work in the Pescadero Marsh to restore natural creek function, reduce erosion, restore wetland habitat, and improve water quality.
  • Marin Agricultural Land Trust’s conservation easement on Gallagher Ranch, which keeps the land in production and also permanently protects critical habitat for a host of native wildlife like endangered coho salmon.
  • Dozens and dozens of miles of Bay Area Ridge Trail and San Francisco Bay Trail, both of which provide world-class opportunities to circumnavigate the region by foot or bike.

This short list of projects were made possible because of SCC funding and the SCC’s staff’s support. And it barely scratches the surface. There are hundreds of more examples like them. 

Mary Small, Sam Schuchat and Amy Hutzel at the state capitol
State Coastal Conservancy Chief Deputy Executive Officer Mary Small (left), Executive Officer Sam Schuchat, and Deputy Executive Officer Amy Hutzel pose, pre-COVID, at the State Capitol. (Photo courtesy State Coastal Conservancy)

I asked one of TOGETHER Bay Area’s members – Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) – about Sam and the SCC. This is what Shaun Horne, MMWD’s Watershed Resources Manager, said: “The SCC under Sam’s direction has long been a supporter of large scale multi-benefit and multi-partner projects that are restoring and protecting sensitive biological species and critical habitats. For example, the SCC has been a strong supporter of Marin County’s Regional Forest Health Strategy, which is helping to increase the resiliency of forests and watershed lands on Mt. Tamalpais in an effort to protect a critical municipal water supply. Sam has a legacy of strong and influential leadership that is much appreciated and will be greatly missed.” 

Under Sam’s leadership, the SCC has supported the creation of and updates to the Conservation Lands Network (CLN), one of TOGETHER Bay Area’s programs. The CLN is a regional conservation strategy for the San Francisco Bay Area, with a bold but achievable goal of conserving 50 percent of the Bay Area’s ecosystems by 2050 and a science-based pathway for achieving it. The CLN is one component of a trio of regional plans – all funded by the SCC – that includes the Baylands Habitat Goals and Subtidal Habitat Goals. This trio guides restoration efforts from below the waterline of the Bay to the peaks and ridges. And they wouldn’t exist without the SCC and Sam’s leadership.

In addition to the accomplishments that can be measured and counted, in addition to the list of projects and measureable outcomes, Sam’s legacy is partnership. He brings people together, builds connections, and works for solutions. And he doesn’t lack personality. Whether he’s playing his saxophone in the SCC band, or wearing his biking kit to ribbon cutting ceremonies, Sam is never boring. He brings a smile-inducing dose of spunk to everything he does. 

The region’s 1.4 million acres of conserved lands are one reason the Bay Area is special. Another is the large, diverse, and dedicated community of people who work tirelessly to restore and steward those millions of acres plus the urban forests, parks, and streams. This community is collegial, caring, and committed to the mission. 

Sam Schuchat has been an integral member of this community for the past 20 years. On behalf of the TOGETHER Bay Area Board of Directors and members, I want to thank him for his service. For his vision and leadership. For his flair. The Bay Area is better off because of Sam, and we’re eternally grateful.

About the Author

Annie Burke is the executive director of TOGETHER Bay Area.