The ethics of wildcrafting


Thoreau once said, “The woods and fields are a table always spread.” Apparently the National Park Service agrees.

In blatant noncompliance (or perhaps misinterpretation) of its own leave no trace policy, national park managers have been allowing Native Americans to harvest wild plants and roots from parks, according to a letter from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) submitted to the Department of the Interior in August. The letter, which requested Interior conduct a formal investigation into “extensive violations to federal regulations,” cited several cases of illegal wildcrafting – the practice of gathering wild plants from their native habitat – in Zion, Bryce and Pipe Springs national parks. It also pointed to a 2009 incident in Yosemite, where the acting superintendent told some 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.” (If only Monsanto were so generous.)

Park Service regulations prohibit “possessing, destroying, injuring, removing, digging, or disturbing plants from their natural state” within all national parks, yet permissions in the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) grant Native Americans the right to gather plants from public lands for cultural and religious practices. Confusion over which law supersedes the other is partly to blame for the current uproar. Some park managers believe AIRFA maintains authority. PEER, however, considers this interpretation a slippery slope, and contends that NPS law holds court.

The group claims the Park Service's “ ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ " attitude amounts to irresponsible management. As stated in their letter: “Any decision made by the Park Service to completely reverse course on protecting plants has direct implications for park wildlife, minerals and cultural artifacts.”

While PEER’s concern for the ecological impact of Indian wildcrafting appears genuine – many experts believe fewer and fewer Indians know how to sustainably harvest wild plants, and more, what’s stopping someone from mass-harvesting for profit? – the conclusion of their letter reveals a more fundamental philosophical disagreement:

The notion that the “first peoples” have an unbroken connection or claim to the land reduces the last five centuries of history to a footnote. … The parks belong to all – aboriginal and new residents equally … Appalachian mountain folk, high country ranchers, loggers of Redwoods also have such historical ties. How can we accommodate traditional ties and preserve the integrity of our national parks?

Of course, equating Native Americans' land claims to loggers' ignores another big chunk of history – one NPS Director Jon Jarvis doesn't seem willing to sweep under the rug. He's called the agency’s restrictions on Indian harvesting “wrong,” and vowed to repeal them. “It became a mission of mine to fix this,” he told Cherokee officials during a meeting in July. “Now that I’m director, I’m in a position to fix it.”

And so Thoreau lives on.

Adam Petry is an HCN intern.

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