Tribes May Yet Gather Plants in National Parks

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The United States Department of the Interior plans to let tribes gather plants for traditional purposes in national parks.
     The rule change, proposed Monday, would allow the National Park Service and federally recognized Indian tribes to enter agreements allowing designated tribal members to remove plants and plant parts from national parks for traditional purposes.
     “The National Park Service (NPS) has a unique relationship with Indian tribes that is strengthened by a shared commitment to stewardship of the land and resources,” the proposal states. “This relationship is augmented by the historical, cultural, and spiritual relationships that Indian tribes have with the park lands and resources with which they are traditionally associated.”
     Historically, native tribes harvested plants from lands that are now part of national parks. Since 1983, they have not been able to harvest from those areas, “except where specific statutes or treaties grant rights to do so,” Interior said, although personal consumption of fruit, berries, nuts and “unoccupied seashells” has been allowed, within certain parameters.
     Indian tribes have been asking for change for about 20 years. During that period, there has been increased study of ethnobotony and traditional plant management, the proposal stated.
     “Research has shown that traditional gathering, when done with traditional methods and in traditionally established quantities, does not impair the ability to conserve plant communities and can help conserve them,” according to the proposal.
     The agency believes the gathering agreements between tribes and the NPS would “respect both tribal sovereignty and NPS authority to manage park resources. These agreements would authorize traditional tribal gathering in ways that could be administered flexibly to respond to local resource concerns. The participating tribal government would be responsible for designating which tribal members would be allowed to gather in accordance with the terms and conditions set forth in the agreement,”.
     The proposed rule change follows six consultation meetings attended by over 150 representatives of 50 tribes from “the Lower 48” during 2010, Interior said. The agency also contacted more than 70 tribes in Alaska and met with tribes that wanted to, made presentations at two statewide tribal conventions and had a conference call with tribal members and elders who did not represent tribal governments, according to the agency. Park managers and staff participated as well.
     Tribes and park staff identified shared concerns, including resource protection, tribal sovereignty and cultural tradition, which the rule change is intended to address, Interior said in its proposal.
     “Tribal representatives expressed deep concern for the long-term health of park ecosystems,” and a willingness to accept limitations on their plant gathering activities, it stated.
     The agency said that existing rules covering Alaska already allow tribes to gather a wider range of plants, animals and minerals than the proposed rule does. In situations where those existing rules apply, the change would not have much impact on parks in Alaska, it said.
     The comment deadline is July 20.

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