Washington, DC — Contrary to long-standing rules, national park managers are allowing Native Americans, even those not affiliated with any federally-recognized Tribes, to gather entire plants, roots or other plant parts from parks, according to agency documents reviewed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This widespread noncompliance occurs with the support of the National Park Service (NPS) Director who has declared the rules to be “wrong” and vowed their repeal.
There has been a general prohibition against removing plants, wildlife and other resources since the very first park system rules in 1936. The current version of the regulation was adopted during the Reagan administration in 1983, following the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA).
Documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act evidence widespread violation of these rules. Some park managers have done so by permits. Other parks such as Zion, Bryce and Pipe Springs entered into Memoranda of Understanding, without public involvement or required environmental reviews, and improperly citing AIRFA as authority, in open contradiction of the NPS’ official rules. Many of other violations are under the table without a paper trail, however. For example in 2009, the acting Superintendent of Yosemite National Park advised a gathering of Indians that they could take any plant they wished and did not need either a permit, or to report what or how much they had taken.
“In clear defiance of regulations, the Park Service has adopted a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ posture on Indian removal of plants,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to a formal legal opinion by the Interior Office of the Solicitor underlining that NPS is legally required to protect park resources absent an explicit congressional waiver. “Any decision made by the Park Service to completely reverse course on protecting plants has direct implications for park wildlife, minerals and cultural artifacts. As with plants, a number of Tribes still claim hunting or other gathering rights on a score of iconic national parks.”
This unofficial rejection of the “no-gather” regulation appears to be led by Jon Jarvis, both as a Regional Director and now as NPS Director. At a Tribal Consultation meeting with Cherokee officials on July 16, 2010 concerning the gathering of ramps (a wild onion) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Jarvis declared that the regulation is “just wrong” and would be changed soon: “It became a mission of mine to fix this. Now, that I’m director, I’m in a position to fix it.”
Director Jarvis cannot unilaterally change a federal regulation. Document requests by PEER have not yielded any evidence that the complicated process for regulatory rewrite has even begun. There are also questions about whether Indians would be subject to limits of sustainability and who would enforce those limits. Moreover, it not at all clear that NPS is entitled to okay harvest of plants without a change in law.
“Director Jarvis’s sentiments may be heartfelt but our national park system cannot be governed by sentiment,” added Ruch, who today asked the Interior Office of Inspector general to review the conduct of Jarvis and other senior NPS managers. “Jon Jarvis took an oath to uphold the law and he may not selectively ignore the regulations he does not personally appreciate.”