A Look Back … Sam Hamilton

Refuge Update July-August 2011

Sam Hamilton was a strong supporter of a renewed vision for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Credit: Tom MacKenzie, USFWS

At age five, Sam Hamilton caught his first fish on Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, not far from his hometown of Starkville, MS. A decade later, he learned to band ducks and build waterfowl pens as a Youth Conservation Corps employee at Noxubee Refuge. 

Hamilton continued to visit during his 12 years as Southeast regional director and in the single year he was Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, before his untimely death in 2010. Visits typically coincided with football games at his alma mater, Mississippi State University.

With an MSU bulldog on his desk and football analogies in his conversation, Hamilton often acted like a coach, recalls Christine Eustis, deputy assistant director for external affairs, who was mentored by him in Atlanta. “Sam had a genuine passion and love for the Refuge System. He was like a kid in a candy store when he talked about refuges, and he always kept that enthusiasm. The field energized him.”

Pacific regional director Robyn Thorson says that Hamilton always saw national policies and politics through the lens of the field. He spoke of the need for refuges to “celebrate their legacy and focus on their future,” says Thorson, who describes Hamilton as an early champion of a new vision for the National Wildlife Refuge System.  

In 2009 testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Hamilton used phrases that could easily appear in the new vision. He spoke of devoting his 30-year Service career to “building collaborative partnerships that allow for the development of ideas and the creation of solutions that are beyond what any one entity could have achieved or even envisioned.” And he believed that climate change would be the “transformational conservation challenge of our time.”

Refuge System deputy chief Jim Kurth agrees that Hamilton strongly supported a vision to succeed the Fulfilling the Promise document “and gave the green light to begin discussions with the entire Service and the broader conservation community about our shared future. We are grateful to him. We missed him tremendously during this journey.”