A move by the National Park Service to allow Native American tribes to collect plants and minerals from units of the National Park System for traditional purposes is being condemned by Public Employees for Environmental Purposes.
“This is a radically misguided proposal which may do lasting harm to the core principles guiding the national park system,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The proposed rule is loosely written and susceptible to broad but unintended consequences to the detriment of park resources.”
Documents the group obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that Park Service Director Jon Jarvis is a proponent of the rule change. During a meeting last July with representatives from the Cherokee Nation the director said the prohibition against gathering plants and minerals for traditional purposes was wrong and that as director it would be his "mission to fix the problem..."
A confidential draft of the proposed regulation that PEER obtained states that "(T)he agreements would facilitate continuation of tribal cultural traditions on ancestral lands that are now included within units of the National Park System without impairing park resources."
"The proposed rule respects tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship between the United States and the tribes and would provide system-wide consistency to this aspect of NPS-tribal relations," it continues. "The proposed rule would provide opportunities for tribal youth, the NPS, and the public to understand tribal traditions without compromising park values or significantly altering strategies for park management."
The document also noted that in some cases Congress specifically allowed tribes to gather plants and minerals for traditional cultural purposes. For example, at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, the document says, "enrolled members of the Pueblos of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara to collect plant and mineral resources ... consistent with the applicable laws governing the monument."
The document also pointed out that by allowing "traditional gathering, when done with traditional methods and in traditionally established quantities, helps to conserve plant communities, and supports the NPS conclusion that cooperation with Indian tribes in the management of plant and mineral resources is consistent with the preservation of national park lands for all American people."
PEER contends, however, that opening the door to this practice would "permit commercial-level harvest for Indian handicraft trade. It would also allow felling of trees, stripping of bark and taking plants important to threatened and endangered species."
Additionally, the organization maintains that the Park Service lacks the legal authority to permit gathering of plants and minerals in parks where Congress has not explicitly permitted the practice.
“National parks should not be managed for political correctness. By law, the national park system is supposed to be managed for ‘the common benefit of all the people of the United States,’” said Mr. Ruch. “Opening parks to ‘traditional’ and ‘cultural’ take of park resources by Indians will inevitably not be limited to Indians. Nor do we know of a legal basis for protecting only the traditions of Indians and no one else.
“We are well aware that this is an emotional issue, with arguments on both sides,” he added. “What is crystal clear, however, is that this significant of a change cannot be dictated by administrative whim; it requires an act of Congress.”