December 13, 2018
Superintendent Cassius M. Cash
National Park Service
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, Tennessee 37738

Dear Superintendent Cash,

I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,600 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), a non-profit organization composed of retired, former, or current employees of the National Park Service (NPS). The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. As a group we collectively represent more than 35,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural and historic resources. Among our members are former directors, regional directors, superintendents, resource specialists, rangers, maintenance and administrative staff, and a full array of other former employees, volunteers, and supporters.

I am writing to you in response to your Environmental Assessment – Sochan Gathering for Traditional Purposes.

Background

In our comments on the 2015 Proposed Rule (Gathering of Certain Plants or Plant Parts by Federally Recognized Indian Tribes for Traditional Purposes: RIN 1024-AD84), the Coalition expressed significant concerns that, among various shortcomings, the Proposed Rule failed to provide adequate guidance to effectively administer such plant gathering as System-wide program. Unfortunately, shortcomings in the GRSM environmental assessment (EA) confirm our concern.

Specifically, the Coalition is concerned that this proposed action will establish a precedent not only for Great Smoky Mountains National Park but for other NPS sites around the country. We are aware of a similar proposal for Buffalo National River and we are equally concerned about the precedential nature of that action as well. We are also sensitive to the needs of Native American groups that were considered when Title 36 CFR was amended in 2016 in which the subject of plant collecting was addressed in chapter 2.6. Our focus is to ensure that park resources are protected unimpaired for future generations and that if this proposed action is approved, that it is accomplished in a sustainable way and impacts to park operations are taken into consideration.

General Questions and Concerns

The EA fails to disclose basic information about the proposed collection activity. For example, according to the EA (Chapter 1, p. 1-3), the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) submitted a written request to the GRSM Superintendent that contained the following:

  • A description of the Indian tribe’s traditional association with the park area
  • A description of the traditional purposes to which the traditional gathering activities relate
  • A description of the traditional gathering and removal activities that the tribe is interested in conducting, including a list of the plants or plant parts that tribal members wish to gather, and the methods by which those plants or plant parts will be gathered

Yet the EA provides little to no specific information regarding the information (i.e., the “descriptions”) mentioned above, making it difficult for interested parties to understand the full nature and extent of the requested gathering activity or the adequacy of the NPS impact analysis. The ECBI’s written request provides critical context for public understanding of the EA; a copy of the request should be included in Appendix A, just as correspondence from “other agencies” has been included.

Within the EA, there are many references to the General Agreement which was not attached. It is difficult to fully understand and address the sochan collection issue without first seeing the provisions of the General Agreement which this EA relies on to explain the relationship between the park and EBCI, and the responsibilities of each for this project.

The EA also fails to ask or address several fundamental questions about the proposed plant gathering activity. According to the EA (Chapter 3, p. 3-5), “Sochan is…very common locally and regionally outside of GRSM boundaries… and is easily propagated.” If sochan is, in fact, readily available and easily grown OUTSIDE the park, presumably including on Tribal land, why is it necessary or desirable for EBCI to collect sochan INSIDE the park? And what adverse impacts, if any, have resulted from EBCI sochan collecting activities OUTSIDE the park? Have there been adverse impacts, such as overharvesting, that have reduced the availability of sochan in the wild outside the park? A discussion of these questions in the EA is fundamental to NPS taking a “hard look” at potential impacts of sochan gathering inside the park.

Lastly, the EA is remarkably vague about the nature and extent of the intended use of the harvested sochan. Presumably intended use would include personal consumption by the gatherers and/or distribution to other Tribal members for personal consumption, both of which seem appropriate to us. However, the cumulative volume of the proposed gathering is massive. The Preferred Alternative would allow up to 36 EBCI enrolled members to annually participate in sochan gathering (EA p. 2-1). For those 36 permittees, each permittee would be allowed to gather a maximum of 0.5 bushel (17.6 liters) per day and a maximum of 1 bushel (35.2 liters) per week of sochan leaves. The annual maximum amount of sochan for each permittee would be 12 bushels (422.4 liters) (EA p. 2-2) multiplied by 36 permittees equates to 432 bushels (15,223.3 liters) annually – over one-and-a-half dump truck loads, which seems like a lot.

Such a volume raises the question as to whether any of the harvested plant material could possibly be sold or otherwise used for commercial purposes, such as for sale by Tribal members to buyers or to the general public, both of which are not appropriate and, in fact, prohibited by NPS regulation. As you may recall, the 2016 rule, § 2.6(f)(1)(ix), requires that gathering agreements contain a statement that the sale or commercial use of natural products is prohibited under existing NPS regulations at 36 CFR 2.1(c)(3)(v).

Cumulative Impacts

The proposed action of collecting sochan by members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) must comply with Title 36 CFR § 2.6 (d)(2) that states that National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations must be followed. Additionally, cumulative impacts must be addressed. The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) NEPA Implementing Procedures, Title 40 CFR §1508.7, state that a “cumulative impact” is the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency (federal or non-federal) or person undertakes such other actions. Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time.”

The collection of sochan may or may not result in impacts to the species when taken alone, but it is our understanding that there is a substantial list of plants, including ginseng and ramps, that the EBCI wishes to collect. The intent to collect plants in addition to sochan is made clear on page 3-7 of the EA, second paragraph. It states “There would be no contribution to cumulative impacts on sochan from future permitted traditional gathering of other plant species.” This mixing of the current EA with unwritten future EA’s seems inappropriate; the National Park Service should determine the cumulative impact of collecting activities over time for all of these species, and for other resources, habitats, and the entire ecosystem as well.

It seems that the conclusion of “no adverse impacts” under the Cumulative Impacts section found on page 3-9 and 3-10 is incorrect. As more species of plants are approved, trampling and social trails will likely increase and the ability of park staff to monitor increasing impacts will probably be limited. Trampling was not even considered an impact topic in this EA. Without effective monitoring, the risk of adverse environmental impacts will rise. Also, what are the possible cumulative direct and indirect impacts of establishing such a program without adequate staff and funding? What will be the cost of this program and where will it be absorbed? What impacts will the redirection of law enforcement rangers have on visitor activities?

Collecting Activities and Monitoring

Sochan is typically found in wet areas, so it is unclear how “sensitive and wet” areas will be avoided during gathering activities (page 3-2). Also, on page 2-2, it is stated that gathering activities will not occur in designated sensitive locations such as research areas, but no details are provided on how this will be accomplished, and the map does not illustrate this. It is difficult to determine the risk of plant mortality due to collecting activities based on the studies referenced on page 3-8. One study was conducted in a controlled setting and may not be directly comparable to wild plants, whereas other studies referred to rhizomatous grasses and ornamental plants. It is not stated how a 20 percent or greater decline in sochan was determined to be the threshold for concern. Also, it is not clear why an impacted population would not be fully restored to 100%, as opposed to 95% (page 2-5).

Monitoring of sochan collecting will be difficult and it may be overly optimistic to believe that park law enforcement staff will be able to do so effectively, especially given the level of park budgets and the incredible existing workload, due in part to record visitation and now the addition of the new section of the Foothills Parkway. On page 3-9 of the EA, it states that “only about 30 percent of the suitable sochan habitat in GRSM would be open to traditional plant gathering. The gathering areas are widely dispersed throughout the park, and little or no gathering is expected to occur in some areas based on the distance of gathering areas from Cherokee, North Carolina.” The fact that the habitat is widely dispersed makes it more difficult to monitor and while the park doesn’t expect other sites to be used, there is no cited evidence to support that conclusion. Furthermore, effective monitoring will become more and more difficult as new plant collecting EA’s are considered and approved over time.

We agree that the rejected alternative as described in Section 2.4.1 of the EA was appropriately treated; however, we believe additional alternatives should have been considered, such as gathering sochan within a more limited area of the park, or perhaps even cultivating sochan in agricultural areas of the park (e.g., fields near the Job Corps center).

In conclusion, we hope you are able to resolve the many issues associated with traditional plant collecting and that you are able to address and resolve our concerns. We look forward to seeing your responses and we are willing to answer any questions that you may have of us.

Sincerely,

 

 

Phil Francis
Chair, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks