PARKS: Bill seeks to carve tribal park from Calif. redwoods (12/02/2010)
Eryn Gable, special to E&E
An Indian tribe is seeking federal backing for legislation that would transfer portions of Redwood National Park in Northern California to be run as a tribal park, including some of the most beautiful spots along the rugged coast where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean.
Draft legislation sent to the National Park Service by a lobbyist for the Yurok Tribe would give the tribe management over thousands of acres of federal lands, including 1,200 acres in Redwood National Park, 1,400 acres of the Redwood Experimental Forest and 10 acres within the California Coastal National Monument. The bill would also create a new national marine sanctuary and authorize the appropriation of $50 million in federal funds that would help the Yurok to purchase 50,000 acres of private lands within the boundaries of their reservation.
The tribe’s lobbyist, T. Destry Jarvis, a Clinton-era Interior Department appointee and brother of NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, noted that Redwood National Park already has a unique relationship with three California state parks that surround it, enabling federal and state agencies to share funds, staff and programs almost seamlessly. The creation of a tribal park would build on that partnership and operate in much the same way, he said.
“This piece of potential legislation has evolved and emerged as a necessary way to implement various pieces of the proposed conservation partnership,” Destry Jarvis said.
He further noted that the only Park Service lands included in the proposal have been part of the Yurok Reservation for more than 100 years — first as part of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation and long before the park was created. Transferring the lands to the Yurok would give them rightful ownership of their ancestral lands, he said.
An Indian tribe is seeking federal backing for legislation transferring portions of Redwood National Park to be run as a tribal park. Targeted lands are among the most beautiful spots along the rugged coast where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy of NPS.
“Nothing would change except who’s managing it. … There would be no timber harvest, no hunting on those lands,” he said.
Indeed, Redwood National Park Superintendent Steve Chaney said the tribe has not indicated to him any concerns with the way the park is currently managed. And on the question of a management transfer, the Park Service has yet to take a position because so few details about the proposal have been released.
“There has been no specific proposal about what the destiny, the future condition or the future uses of these lands would be or what would happen to the lands if they were transferred to give the agency anything to react to,” Chaney said. “We can’t oppose or support concepts that have not been specifically proposed.”
Yet even in its early stages, the proposal has drawn opposition from some environmental groups, most notably Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which contends the deal would be an “unprecedented and unjustified giveaway of treasured public resources.”
Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, noted that the legislation could open the door to tribes taking control of large chunks of the American landscape now managed by the federal government, since the Yurok Tribe is making a moral — not legal — claim to the lands. “That claim could be made for scores of parks and refuges,” he said.
Ruch noted that other arrangements where tribes have been given management authority over federal lands have often been detrimental to natural resource protection, pointing to the history of problems with tribal management at the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in Montana. A federal court earlier this year rescinded an agreement awarding control over the bison range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, saying the tribes violated a key environmental statute.
One problem with giving tribes management authority over public lands is that tribes are not accountable to the general public in the same way that the federal government is, since they are independent governments, Ruch said. “If some member of the public is ill-served [at a tribal park], they have no place to go with that concern.”
But environmental groups that have been involved with the Yurok Tribe maintain members have the best interests of the land at heart. Ron Sundergill, senior director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Pacific Region in San Francisco, said discussions with the tribe have left him encouraged about a possible deal.
“I can’t say with 100 percent assurance that we are going to support the legislation,” Sundergill said, noting that his group has not yet seen the draft legislation. “But based on what we know now, we would move in that direction.”
Others are taking a more guarded position. Bruce Hamilton, national conservation director for the Sierra Club, said his group has yet to develop a position on the legislation, but the club remains concerned about transferring lands from federal ownership and has questions about how the lands would be managed under tribal authority.
“Whenever there is talk about modifying the boundary of a protected area, whether it’s a national park or a wilderness area or a wildlife refuge, one has initial concerns about the land that’s transferred out of protected status and is it going to be equally protected, if not better protected,” he said.
Tribes and parks
Few national parks have been created with more struggle than the remaining stands of Pacific Coast redwoods. Established in 1968 and expanded in 1978, Redwood National Park includes lands one mile on either side of the Klamath River, lands that were once part of the Yurok ancestral homeland.
The draft legislation stipulates the lands under the tribe’s control “will be administered by the Tribe in a manner fully compatible with the policies and programs of the respective federal agencies” — in this case, the National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
The draft legislation also specifies that “commercial timber harvest, hunting, and development incompatible with the adjacent National Park lands” would be prohibited in Redwood National Park and the Forest Service lands would be administered to preserve old-growth forests and protect habitat for native species such as the marbled murrelet.
The California initiative reflects a trend toward tribal overtures to regain control of ancestral lands that are now managed by the federal government. Earlier this year, the National Park Service and Oglala Sioux Tribe unveiled a proposal to give the tribe management authority over the southern unit of Badlands National Park in South Dakota (Land Letter, Sept. 16).
Given that many national parks — including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and Mount Rainier — were created from lands traditionally used by Native Americans, Congress has given tribes special access to their ancestral lands. For example, the Havasupai Tribe is allowed use of lands within Grand Canyon National Park for grazing and other traditional uses.
There are also cases where national park lands have been transferred to tribes. For example, the Miccosukee Tribe of south Florida was granted 667 acres in Everglades National Park in 1998 for a residential community, and the Timbisha Shoshone people were granted nearly 7,000 acres within and adjacent to Death Valley National Park in 2000, giving the tribe a land base for the first time.
But the tribal efforts at Redwood National Park go a step further than previous legislative measures. “If you look at it in the specific context of lands being transferred to tribal trust for no specific reason other than that they’re within an established reservation, I know of no precedents for that,” Chaney said.
Yet Destry Jarvis stressed that the uniqueness of the Yurok Tribe’s proposal stems more from its willingness to cooperate with the National Park Service than with the basis of its claims to the land. “Above anything else, this is a good precedent in my opinion, not a bad precedent, in which the tribe wants to see the lands managed in a conservation regime fully identical to national park management,” he said.
He said the bill is expected to be introduced when the new Congress convenes in January.
However, in an e-mailed statement, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), whose district includes Redwood National Park, said he is waiting to hear from the local community, affected groups and other stakeholders before moving forward with a bill. “The Yurok tribe has been great to work with but there remains more work to do before any legislation will be ready to be introduced,” he said.
Click here to read the draft legislation and e-mails concerning the proposal obtained by PEER.
Gable is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.