by Susan Leopold, PhD

Tohono O’odham tribal elder Lois Liston uses a saguaro rib to harvest the cactus fruit at Colossal Cave Mountain Park. It is an ancient tradition practiced by the tribe. Photographer: Mike Christy

In 2016, the National Park Service enacted a ruling that allows the gathering of certain plants or plant parts by federally recognized Indian Tribes for traditional purposes. This landmark document established a protocol where tribes can formally request a permit to harvest, and then the NPS conducts an environmental assessment to review the impact of the request, and a contractual agreement is then established between the tribe and the park.

In some cases there are prior agreements, such as treaties that established the rights of local tribes to harvest certain plant materials, but these agreements are rare and this new ruling allows for future agreements that can build upon tribal relationships with National Parks. Reconnecting relationships between plants and people on National Park land has the potential to increase cultural and ecological diversity. Certainly the process is not perfect and can be perceived as cumbersome but it is a step towards acknowledgment of the indigenous relationships with the land prior to the current management and ownership by the national park service.

Shortly after the ruling the Tohono O’odham Nation requested to continue harvesting saguaro fruit (Carnegiea gigantea) and cholla buds (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa) in alignment with their traditional practices. These activities have occurred for millennia within the Sonoran Desert, including on ancestral lands now managed by Saguaro National Park. The 2016 rule has created a new framework for authorizing tribal harvest of plant materials by directing NPS units to specify proposed activities within an agreement and analyze impacts from the activities on park resources through an Environmental Assessment (EA).

In an article in the local paper Scott Stonum, chief of science and resource management for the park, said, “Upon completion of the assessment, the director of the Park Service’s Intermountain Region signed a finding that the gathering has no significant impact on Saguaro Park and therefore can go on. “We realize that the current engagement of the Tohono O’odham people with the lands of Saguaro National Park is an important part of their cultural heritage, and that’s part of what the park is here to protect.”

“Based on the way they harvest and the relative small quantity they harvest, we feel it’s very compatible with the operation of the park,” Stonum said, noting that harvests took place long before the park was established, originally as a national monument in 1933. Tohono O’odham officials welcomed the decision to permit continued harvesting. “The saguaro fruit harvest brings families together every year to celebrate our cultural heritage,” said Edward Manuel, chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) (Σ64 [CC BY-SA 3.0)
Another example is the recent request from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) to harvest sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata) in the Great Smoky National Park. An extensive Environmental Impact study was done according to NEPA standards. This report is available on the Parks website and provides a wealth of information on the species and research that looked at effects of harvest on the species. In reviewing the study it appears that it recommends in favor of an agreement to allow harvesting along with monitoring in place and a five-year revisit/renewal of the agreement.

Plant population mapping and monitoring studies that result in agreements between tribes and the National Park authorities signal a change in the mindset of park based conservation where people are no longer perceived as separate from nature but are actively engaged in meaningful reciprocal relationships. In reviewing the guidelines that frame this new ruling and the plant specific agreements, it is encouraging to see the relationship between plants and people not be quantified by a financial gain but by cultural and ecological values.