While the mission of the National Park System is to preserve natural wonders for the enjoyment of all Americans, a Native American tribe in Northern California is asking to keep a piece of Redwoods National Park for its own purposes.
One of the state's most populous Native American tribes, the Yurok, has recently issued a proposal that would include a transfer of land in Redwood National Park to management by the tribe. The tribe hopes to build a tribal park system that would encompass the Redwood National Park land and several nearby land purchases.
Though rare, transfers of land from the National Park Service and native tribes have taken place at least a half-dozen times in the past 35 years. In California, 314 acres of Death Valley National Park went to the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe in 2000.
The tribe, which has set land acquisition as a centerpiece of the tribal political agenda, is seeking control of the land so that it can generate revenue and exercise sovereign rights over its ancestral territory. The problem, opponents say, is the precedent the land transfer would set for the national park system.
The tribe has drafted federal legislation that would allow the transfer of nearly 1,200 acres of Redwood National Park land in Del Norte County to the tribe's management. The tribe would package the Redwood National Park land together with 1,200 acres of Six Rivers National Forest land; Redding Rock, an offshore landmark currently under management by the Bureau of Land Management as part of the California Coastal National Monument; and some 50,000 acres currently owned by Green Diamond Resource Company. The other purchases are not a part of the draft legislation that would transfer the national park land to the tribe.
Tribal Chairman Troy Fletcher maintains that the tribe will continue to allow full public access to the Redwood National Park parcel under a co-management agreement that meets the standards of the National Park Service.
"We would call the land a tribal park, but it would remain within the boundaries of Redwood National Park, and we would manage it in a way compatible with the Redwood General Management Plan," said Fletcher.
Although the land would be transferred to the tribe, Fletcher said that it would be held in trust by the United States. The tribe, however, would create its own management plan and take over management from the National Park service. Fletcher said that the planning process would take place "in a transparent, open process, allowing public comment about the management of the park land."
Opponents of the proposal, however, have already perceived a lack of transparency in the tribe's planning process for the Redwood National Park parcel. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national alliance of public employees that monitor environmental laws and standards, recently released an email from Destry Jarvis, a lobbyist employed by the tribe, addressed to the National Park Service (NPS). PEER believes that the emails exhibit back room dealing and a conflict of interest, in part because Destry Jarvis is the brother of NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, also worries that the transfer of public lands proposed by the tribe would open the door for similar transfers around the state and the country, risking the protection of public lands and fragile ecosystems.
According to Ruch, an earlier draft of legislation proposing the transfer "was a major gift of public lands and resources for nothing in return. If you adopted a similar kind of approach to other national parks land where tribes had historic and cultural connections, you would dismantle the entire national parks, forests, and refuges systems."
Several tribes around the country have entered similar co-management arrangements for former tribal areas with the federal government , the most prominent example in California being the Timbisha Tribe in Death Valley National Park. Ruch, however, argues that the Yurok Tribe's plans require a change of laws that govern National Park land.
The Yurok claim to understand the concerns of opponents, holding public meetings and charrettes with environmental groups and other NGOs. Tribal Chairman Fletcher suggested that the public process has improved the tribe's proposal: "People feel passionately and strongly about park land, so that issue has dominated much of the dialogue that we have had through these meetings. By identifying their interest, they have given the Yurok Tribe information about how we should draft any potential legislation."
Just as important as the precedent the actions of the tribe will set for the future, are the past precedents the tribe means to overcome.
According to Thomas Gates, an anthropologist who is a former consultant for the tribe, episodes of displacement and disenfranchisement mark the Yurok Tribe's recent history, contributing to the cause and timing for the tribe's proposal. From the 1860s until the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act of 1988, the tribe was forced to occupy the nearby Hoopa reservation. The Yurok narrowly missed gaining the national park land currently in question as part of the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act, which drew the current boundaries of the Yurok Reservation but dropped the Redwood National Park land before Congressional approval.
Moreover, the tribe has little control over most of the land that was set aside for their reservation.
According to Gates, the Yurok Reservation totals about 57,000 acres, but the tribe only owns about 15 percent of that 57,000 acres either as fee lands (which means the tribe pays taxes on the lands to the state) or land held in trust on behalf of the Yurok Tribe by the United States government. A timber company, Green Diamond Resource Company, owns 65 percent of the remaining land on the reservation. Therefore, the tribe's land acquisition plans have potential as a sustainable economic driver for the tribe.
"The Yuroks had upwards of 60 percent unemployment prior to the economic downturn," said Gates. "Here is one of the biggest employers in the region, and the Yurok want more employment in the park."
Not all groups interested in preserving national park land have spoken out to oppose the proposal. Ron Tipton, the executive director of the National Parks Conservation Association, cites the Yurok Tribe's good record of conservation, leading efforts to restore condor and salmon habitat in the North State. Tipton makes it clear, however, that before his organization will take a stand on the proposal, he wants to see the details of the co-management arrangement between the National Park Service and the tribe.
"We want to know exactly to what standards they intend to manage and what ability the National Park Service will have to be a partner in assuring that the tribal park concept articulated by the legislation is adhered to for the long term," said Tipton.
Tipton acknowledges that past examples of land transfers like this have had mixed results. But he believes that the good standing of the Yurok Tribe in the conservation community indicates that tribe has conservation-minded intentions for the national park land and can provide competent and conscientious management.
Jarvis is unequivocal about the intentions of the tribe.
"The National Park land would not change in any way, except possibly for the better, if transferred to the tribe. The tribe would have much more concentrated interest in the condition and quality of the land and the visitor experience there than the National Park Service does," adding that "The tribe does not plan to cut any trees, and they are willing to specify in the language of the legislation."
The Yurok Tribe does not currently have a timetable for the draft legislation to appear before Congress, but the tribe is continuing to hold public meetings in the North State and with members of Congress in Washington D.C. A tribal representative informed CP&DR that the draft legislation proposing the land transfer will soon appear on the tribe's website.
Rep. Mike Thompson, a Democrat from California's First Congressional District, which includes the Yurok Reservation, must introduce the draft legislation to Congress before the land transfer has a chance to become reality.
In a statement about the project, Thompson said, "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."
Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe Public Relations Manager, (707) 482-1350
Jeff Ruch, Executive Director, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, (202) 265-7337
Thomas Gates, Cultural Resources Program Manager, North State Resources, (916) 956-9048;
Ron Tipton, Senior Vice President of Policy, National Parks Conservation Association, (202) 223-6722
T. Destry Jarvis, President, Outdoor Recreation & Park Service, (540) 338-6970
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story described the land transfer as "unprecedented." This estimation was erroneous and based on incomplete information. CP&DR regrets the error.