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Proposed national park rule to ease plant gathering restrictions

The Department of the Interior, through the National Park Service (NPS), aims to adopt a new rule that will allow designated members of federally recognized Tribes to gather plants from national parks.

When adopted, the new rule will regulate agreements between parks and Tribes for picking and collecting plants for medicinal, ceremonial and traditional purposes.

Since 1983, laws geared to preserve and protect nature at national parks and other sites have prohibited all people from taking dead or alive plants, wildlife and fish; archaeological and historical objects; and raw materials, including minerals.

But first Americans have harvested plants from sea to sea long before the first national park, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872. The 2 million acres in Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho were used by Crow, Blackfoot and Nez Perce Tribes when the land was taken for tourism under the Secretary of the Interior. By 1888, after bloody skirmishes with the Army, Native American presence at Yellowstone evaporated.

NPS, formally created in 1916 under the Department of the Interior, holds 84 million acres that include 408 protected sites, 59 of which are national parks. Florida’s three national parks are Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park and Everglades National Park. Big Cypress National Preserve is one of 11 NPS protected units in Florida.

The new proposed rule, entered into the Federal Register in April, is nearing its formalization – but not without comments and suggestions from Indian Country.

For Chairman James E. Billie, the rules that ban plant removal barely matter.

“A lot of our medicine is right on our reservations. We happen to be in a lucky location,” Chairman Billie said.

The Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes via the Big Cypress Enabling Act, already access Big Cypress National Preserve for traditional and cultural purposes.

Other Tribes have not been as fortunate.

Jonathan B. Jarvis, director of the NPS, bought the issue to light in a 2010 letter to tribal leaders.

“The NPS recognizes that Indian Tribes view the continued access to and use of plants and other resources as critical to the continuity of their distinct culture. It is now time to look at the specific provisions of the regulations in light of current legal mandates and policies to see if the needs of traditional Indian cultural practitioners might be met,” Jarvis wrote.

In 2010, six tribal consultation meetings were held. About 150 members from 50 Tribes attended meetings in Arizona, California, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina and Washington. Additional meetings were held during two Native conferences in Alaska.

Tribes had through Sept. 28 to comment on the language of the new proposed rule, which lifts the prohibition of plant gathering. After comments are reviewed and analyzed, the new proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register, the federal government’s official notice for proposed and final administrative regulations.

Through Sept. 20, almost 80 responses were received from individuals, federally recognized Tribes and indigenous groups throughout Indian Country, said Jeffrey Olson, a public affairs officer at NPS.

Under the new proposed rule, Tribes can enter agreements with park sites to which they are traditionally or historically associated. Tribal members allowed by tribal leaders to gather plants will be registered and the plants to be harvested will be listed. The agreement will also note plant quantities to be gleaned and what days and what times the gatherings will happen.

Agreements can also include cooperative plans between parks and Tribes to ensure the continued health and protection of the plant and programs for plant site management that could include research, monitoring and regular consultation to assure that the park resources flourish for future generations.

The final rule could be published in the Federal Register as early as spring 2016. It will go into effect 30 days after it is published.

“The committees are pretty good about looking at the comments carefully, seeing how they can address them and take the course of action needed to move forward,” Olson said.

United South and Eastern Tribes Inc. (USET), comprised of 26 Tribes from Maine to Florida, provided in-depth remarks endorsed by tribal leaders and signed by USET President Brian Patterson and Executive Director Kitcki A. Carroll.

Overall, USET is pleased that the ban will be lifted but is wary that government rules could expose Native traditions that have long been kept within Tribes and Clans.

Among USET recommendations:

•Allow tribal governments to designate members who may gather in order to maintain sustainability of ecosystems.

•Include gathering of minerals traditionally used for religious purposes, artistic endeavors and personal consumption.

•Allow minor commercial use of natural resources, including plant or plant parts that are used for Native craft items traditionally offered for sale.

•Establish provisions that will not reveal publicly the locations of natural resources important to Tribes.

•Treat agreements covering minor gathering activities as exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Comments from traditionalists and independents, including the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples, led by Clan Leader and Spiritual Leader Bobby C. Billie, offer no compromise but instead demand unconditional access to all indigenous people, regardless of Tribe enrollment.

“By creating defined parameters and designated individuals, the federal government assumes control over those practices by determining who is allowed to engage in a cultural way of life and what that way of life might be. This is illegal and unacceptable,” read the May 20 letter.

The comment letter was also signed by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle and Spiritual Leader of the Great Sioux Nation; Leland Grass, a Dine’ Traditionalist; and Faith Spotted Eagle, of the Brave Heart Society, Ihanktonwan Dakota.

The letter further states “to deny [them] traditional rights is a direct violation of law, and it is racist and divisive.”

Chairman Billie said Native Americans will always be respectful of nature no matter what laws are handed down.

“The government can make all the rules and regulations they want. We’ve been here a long, long time and we haven’t violated or devastated our Earth in the least,” Chairman Billie said.