Park Service Misled the Public on Plant Harvest Plan
Public Comment Reopened Due to Unsupported Statements in Federal Register Notice
Washington, DC — Today, the National Park Service reopened public comment on a controversial plan to allow Indian tribes to remove park trees and other plants after it was revealed that the Agency had provided no factual basis for key official statements supporting the plan, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The unusual action comes in response to a PEER lawsuit charging the National Park Service (NPS) with violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for withholding the documents behind its rosy claims about the plan’s potential effects.
On April 20, 2015, the NPS unveiled its proposed rule that would overturn a ban going back to its earliest days against possessing, destroying, defacing, or disturbing plants or plant parts except as authorized by law or treaty. The plan would direct park superintendents to enter into agreements for gathering plants or plant parts for “traditional purposes” by federally-recognized Indian tribes unless they find “a significant adverse impact on park resources.” The public comment period for this proposed rule ended on July 20th.
In a FOIA request filed the day NPS proposed its rule, PEER sought the documents backing up NPS assertions that the plan would have little environmental effect and asked they be produced before the public comment period closed. When the agency failed to produce any of the records on the date it promised, PEER filed suit. On July 27th, a week after the public comment period ended, NPS revealed that it had no evidence for –
- Its claim in the original Federal Register Notice of research showing that traditional gathering “does not impair the ability to conserve plant communities and can help to conserve them.” The NPS FOIA officer could point to no specific research supporting this central contention. Instead, NPS provided an abridged bibliography of articles of unclear relevance, vaguely claiming that “no single document or documents exist that fully summarize the depth and variety of research on traditional knowledge”;
- Its assurance that it had followed an internal mandate to “inventory [and] monitor” traditional gathering impacts on park plants. Again, the agency conceded while there had been a few studies touching on this topic “These materials are not catalogued in such a manner to be able to identify each and every one related to this topic”; and
- A representation that it had done an analysis which concluded the NPS need not conduct further review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The agency confessed that “after a search of the files no documents were found that specifically addressed the determination that the categorical exclusion cited would serve in lieu of a NEPA [review].”
“These concessions reveal that this Park Service plan is fashioned out of whole cloth,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who today filed supplemental comments detailing the significance of these factual and legal lapses for the plan. “It is disturbing that the Park Service allowed blatantly false statements to be published in the Federal Register.”
When PEER obtained this incriminating information, it complained that the NPS had committed a fraud on the public by withholding essential information. The government agreed to PEER’s suggestion that the public comment period be reopened so that the matter could be ventilated. As a result, the public comment period is today reopened for another 45 days.
There are more than 500 federally-recognized Indian Tribes, many with ancestral ties to most parks across the country. Tribal requests to harvest plants range from the giant redwoods of Redwood National Park, to ramps in Great Smoky Mountain National Park to birch and ash trees inside Acadia National Park.
“For a proposal of this magnitude, the Park Service should have done its due diligence in the form of a detailed study of the status of affected plant communities and the effects of opening them up to harvest. Instead, the agency decided to fly blind,” added Ruch, noting that today’s Federal Register Notice does not explain precisely why the comment period was reopened other than “to give the public additional time to review and comment on the proposal.” “This embarrassing episode only underlines that this misguided and imprudent proposal will not improve with more ventilation. It should be withdrawn.”