The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Park Service to Let Indians Remove Plants and Minerals

Abrupt Reversal of Conservation Mandate Raises Legal and Management Questions


In a major about-face, the National Park Service is finalizing a proposed rule change that would allow Indians to remove plants, plant parts and minerals from national parks, according to documents released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The rule change will have broad impacts, affecting nearly all natural and many cultural areas of the entire park system as virtually every park in the U.S is the former ancestral land of one or several federally-recognized tribes.

The proposed rule would overturn the current rule, adopted by the National Park Service (NPS) in 1983, that prohibits "the taking, use or possession of fish, wildlife or plants for ceremonial or religious purposes, except where specifically authorized" by law or treaty. Instead, NPS would let park superintendents enter into agreements authorizing the gathering for traditional purposes of plants, plant parts, or minerals by members of Indian tribes. This plan poses a number of problems, however, including:

  • Unexamined Eco-Effects. The proposed rule 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. Yet, NPS has undertaken no scientific studies of potential impacts and will not submit the rule for review under the National Environmental Policy Act;
  • Lack of Legal Authority. NPS wants to interpret its Organic Act mandate for conservation in a manner 180 degrees opposite from its interpretation over more than a generation. Currently, only a dozen parks have Indian collecting but only with explicit statutory authorization. Similarly, the U.S. Forest Service felt it needed an act of Congress in 2008 to authorize this practice; and
  • Precedent for Take of Park Animals. The same rationale NPS uses to support removal of plants and minerals to support traditional Indian practices supports take of park animals and animal parts.

"This is a radically misguided proposal which may do lasting harm to the core principles guiding the national park system," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. "The proposed rule is loosely written and susceptible to broad but unintended consequences to the detriment of park resources."

At the heart of the proposal is a policy decision to elevate the traditional practices of Indians above all others. At a July 16, 2010 meeting with Cherokee officials concerning gathering of ramps (a wild onion) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NPS Director Jon Jarvis declared the current rule is "just wrong" and would be changed, explaining, according to minutes obtained by PEER:

"...Jon noted that a precedent had been set to let non-natives collect plant materials in parks. Our goal, to the contrary is to allow American Indians to gather and restrict gathering by non-natives."

"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,'" added Ruch, noting that Director Jarvis has encouraged his superintendents to flout the current rule but the Interior Inspector General refused to investigate the 2010 PEER complaint of widespread under-the-table tribal agreements. "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," Ruch concluded. "What is crystal clear, however, is that this significant of a change cannot be dictated by administrative whim; it requires an act of Congress."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.