FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Members of the Hualapai Tribe in northwestern Arizona occupied the Grand Canyon long before it became a national park. They collected fruit from cacti and pine nuts for food, cedar and mesquite to weave baskets, and materials to fashion cradleboards for their children.
The National Park Service said it recognizes that tribes around the country need such resources to sustain their cultures and on Monday proposed a system to let them remove plants from national parks for traditional uses.
The agency's current rules prevent tribal members from doing so, although it has been allowed under informal agreements at individual parks.
"It was pretty much on a case-by-case basis," said Joe Watkins, American Indian officer for the Park Service. "The rule itself is going to put a little more onus on the tribes."
Under the proposal, tribal members would have to prove a traditional association to the land and describe the plants they want to take and how the material will be used. Park officials would then conduct an environmental assessment before granting a permit, generally within three to six months, Watkins said.
A public comment period on the proposal runs through July 20.
Loretta Jackson-Kelly, cultural director for the Hualapai Tribe, welcomed the proposal. But she said the tribe will have to review it further to see if requirements such sharing information on gathering and use of the plants are reasonable.
The Park Service said it believes it can keep sensitive information confidential, but Jackson-Kelly said she's not so sure because environmental assessments are public documents.
"We'll just have to wait and see how the Park Service responds to individual tribes," she said. "I'm glad this has come about. We've been having meetings about it over the past five years."
Some statutes and treaty rights already give tribes access to national parks to gather plants, but the regulations aren't consistent across the Park Service.
For example, legislation that created El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico included language that gives American Indians nonexclusive entry to the land marked by molten lava for traditional and religious purposes, including gathering pine nuts.
Watkins said some California tribes might seek permits to gather willow shoots for traditional use, while tribes near Big Bend National Park in Texas might want to gather mesquite berries that are used in ceremonial dress.
The rules won't change for the general public, which is allowed to gather fruit and nuts from certain parks with permission.
"Generally it's 'look and don't touch' when it comes to animals, vegetables, minerals in the parks," said Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson.