Plant Harvest Plan Threatens National Park Resources
Tribal Gathering Proposal Is Radical Departure from Conservation Principles
Washington, DC — A National Park Service proposal to allow Indian tribes to remove trees and other plants from national parks is a radical reversal of resource protection policy that requires an act of Congress, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). If adopted, the rule change will have broad impacts, affecting nearly every national park and creating a legal basis for tribes to also remove wildlife in iconic parks long closed to hunting.
The proposed rule unveiled on April 20, 2015 would overturn a ban going back to the earliest days of the National Park Service (NPS) against possessing, destroying, defacing, or disturbing plants or plant parts except as authorized by law or treaty. Instead, NPS would direct park superintendents to enter agreements for gathering plants or plant parts for “traditional purposes” by federally-recognized Indian tribes unless he or she finds “a significant adverse impact on park resources.”
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.
Opening parks to widespread tribal harvesting poses legal and environmental problems, including:
- Unexamined Eco-Effects. The proposed rule would permit felling of trees, stripping of bark and taking plants important to threatened and endangered species. NPS claims to have studies showing traditional harvest actually aids conservation of native plant populations but has not produced any such study in response to a request from PEER which points to studies showing the opposite as well as the inability of parks to curb widespread plant poaching;
- Lack of Legal Authority. NPS is looking to shift its Organic Act conservation mandate 180 degrees from its historic interpretation. Currently, only a dozen parks have Indian collecting but only with explicit and limited statutory authorization. Similarly, the U.S. Forest Service felt it needed an act of Congress in 2008 to authorize this practice but NPS contends that seeking congressional authorization would be “impractical”; and
- Precedent for Take of Park Animals. The same rationale NPS uses to support removal of plants to support traditional Indian practices equally supports take of park animals and animal parts.
“This is a radically misguided proposal that may do lasting harm to the core principles guiding the national park system,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization today filed suit in federal district court under the Freedom of Information Act for documents NPS has failed to produce about the effects of the rule and how it was negotiated. “The proposed rule places park superintendents in the untenable role of policing Indian traditional practices.”
The NPS proposal states that certain aspects of tribal agreements would remain confidential. In addition, NPS refuses to submit the rule for National Environmental Policy Act review. Nor does the agency explain how it will affect mandates under statutes such as the Endangered Species and Wilderness Acts.
“While this is an emotional issue, with arguments on both sides, a change of this magnitude cannot and should not be dictated by administrative whim; it requires an act of Congress,” added Ruch, noting that this plan is a hobbyhorse of NPS Director Jon Jarvis who has called the current rule “just wrong” and encouraged his superintendents to ignore it. “National parks should not be managed for political correctness. Our national parks are supposed to be managed for the common benefit of all Americans –from the first peoples to the last arrivals alike.”
This NPS proposed rule change is open to public comment until July 20, 2015.