January 5, 2020
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 1,700 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition).The Coalition is 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 nearly 40,000 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.
The Coalition previously submitted comments on the 2015 Proposed Rule – Gathering of Certain Plants or Plant Parts by Federally Recognized Indian Tribes for Traditional Purposes: RIN 1024-AD84 (proposed rule) and the 2019 Environmental Assessment – Sochan Gathering for Traditional Purposes (EA). We now submit comments regarding Proposed Amendment 1 to the General Agreement for Sochan Gathering for Traditional Purposes by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM).
General Questions and Concerns
In our comments on the 2015 proposed rule and 2019 EA, the Coalition expressed significant concerns regarding the proposal and the supporting documentation made available. These concerns related both to the general nature of the proposed agreement and to the precedent it establishes, not only for GRSM but throughout the National Park System. And we have questions about the potential impacts of sochan gathering at GRSM as described in the Proposed Amendment.
Chief among these concerns is our skepticism about the need for collecting sochan within the park if it is, indeed, available outside the boundary. Conversely, if the rationale for collecting sochan inside the park is that it has been over-harvested and is therefore too scarce outside the park, then that should raise a red flag for the NPS about the potential adverse impacts of this activity within the park boundary. We believe NPS should provide a better explanation of the justification for sochan gathering in the park. Moreover, it is our understanding that there is a substantial list of additional plants, such as ginseng and ramps, which the EBCI may wish to collect inside park boundaries in the future. Stating the obvious, permitting the gathering by the ECBI of any plants or plant materials other than sochan would require additional National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance, as the NEPA documentation to date only covers the collection of sochan.
Regardless of the plant materials harvested, now or in the future, the current sochan gathering program is “setting the bar” for NPS due diligence and oversight of the plant gathering program at GRSM. As a result, NPS should acknowledge and address the obvious difficulty of ensuring against misuse of the gathering permits for commercial purposes; the potential for secondary resource damage such as trampling and social trails; the impact on park operations due to the need for monitoring and enforcement; and the inherent difficulty in accurately monitoring and quantifying adverse impacts of permitted gathering activities.
While we expressed these concerns in our previous comments, they continue and are not alleviated by the issuance of this Proposed Amendment.
Specific Concerns Regarding the Proposed Amendment
A major issue concerning the Proposed Amendment is the sparse information provided to assess its potential effects. The Categorical Exclusion Documentation (CE) for the Proposed Amendment states that “In accordance with Section 16 of the General Agreement, GRSM and EBCI staff completed a review of traditional gathering activities conducted in 2019.” However, there is no information offered that provides any detail regarding the scope of such review or, in particular, the extent of collecting activity or the associated impacts that may have occurred during the 2019 growing season. As a result, it is difficult or impossible to assess the effectiveness of the initial General Agreement in protecting park resources, or weigh any need for revisions, without knowing the level of activity or impacts that have occurred. We understand that NPS has such information for the 2019 growing season and we encourage NPS to share it with the public as part of the CE’s analysis.
Regarding information collection requirements, as mandated under 36 CFR 2.6 the initial March 2019 General Agreement, section 9.a.(6), contained specific protocols for reporting and monitoring traditional gathering and removal activities and thresholds above which NPS and tribal management intervention would occur. This included weekly reporting requirements covering “dates of harvest; location of harvest; number of participants (permittees and guests); number of gathering trips; and quantity (volume) of sochan leaves harvested.” It also indicated that NPS resource management staff would “monitor potential impacts to sochan gathering throughout the growing season (spring and summer). Monitoring would follow the protocol for the Carolina Vegetation Survey (http://cvs.bio.unc.edu/methods.htm) with minor changes as needed. Plots would be distributed in harvest zones and non-harvest zones to assess sochan abundance, potential harvest-related sochan mortality, and incidental impacts of harvesting such as trampling.”
Obviously, the existing General Agreement contains a number of specific data gathering and reporting requirements, which one would reasonably expect to inform future analyses of impacts as well as decision making. Again, the NPS should provide that information in its environmental analysis (i.e., the CE) of the potential impacts of the Proposed Amendment.
Because the sochan gathering permit and General Agreement at GRSM is in its initial 5-year term, and presumably could become a long-term program, we strongly recommend that NPS add a provision to the Proposed Amendment requiring that ECBI and NPS shall jointly publish an annual report summarizing the weekly data reported by EBCI (as required in Section 9.a.(6)) and any impacts observed by NPS resource management staff during the most recent growing season. This report should include a comparative analysis of sochan status in control (i.e., non-gathering) areas as well as in harvested areas. If published on an annual basis (and posted on the PEPC website for the project), such a report would improve public confidence in NPS transparency and diligence of its oversight of the sochan gathering program at GRSM. And such information would also serve as a credible basis for assessing actual (not speculative) impacts when the time comes to consider renewing or extending the permit.
In addition to the above concern, we are also concerned about difficulties in enforcing the requirement that permittees “not gather more than 50% of the above ground biomass (leaves) from individual sochan clumps (individual spring basal rosettes) and a requirement to avoid repeated harvesting from individual sochan clumps in the same season.” Is there a mechanism in place to monitor and enforce this? What impact might such monitoring and enforcement workloads have on other essential park operations?
Last, but not least, proposed Amendment 1.2, which addresses prohibited collecting locations, would change the key phrase from “out of sight” to “not…within 80 feet” of heavily visited areas. In our view, this provision could seriously weaken protection of the visitor experience and potentially confuse park visitors who may be more likely to observe and question sochan gathering activities. While we understand the contention that the initial language might be “highly variable and difficult to define or enforce,” it serves as a valid and practical guideline for collector discretion – one is either out of sight of heavily visited areas or not. We believe that it would be better to add the eighty-foot minimum distance to the agreement (as in “out of sight and not within 80 feet”) rather than merely substituting it for the requirement that collecting take place out of visitor sight.
We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the proposed amendments and commend the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for its recognition of the legitimate needs of traditionally associated populations and its related efforts to work cooperatively with local Native American groups. We understand that your staff has worked closely with the Eastern Band on this issue and that this amendment is the result of discussions with them so that the agreement is clear. Given the initial General Agreement’s potential to impact park resources and the precedent it sets for the entire National Park System, it is critical to ensure that any collecting is done in a sustainable way that leaves the park’s resources unimpaired for future generations. Accordingly, we urge that you revise the Proposed Amendment to address the concerns we have identified in this letter.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
201 I Street, NE #805, Washington, DC 20002
cc: Robert Vogel, Southeast Regional Director, National Park Service