Coalition on National Parks’ Future Seeks Native Involvement

Dean B. Suagee

In this the year of the centennial of the National Park Service, a coalition has emerged with a vision for the future of our national parks and other public lands, a vision of greater diversity and inclusiveness. The “Next 100 Coalition” is comprised of more than 30 civil rights, environmental justice, and conservation organizations. The coalition’s vision statement calls for an approach to our national public lands that reflects the ethnic and demographic diversity of the nation, including greater use of national parks by people of color, and more people of color in the work force of the Park Service and other federal land management agencies. The coalition also calls for more attention to ethnic diversity in telling the stories about our parks and national monuments, and in adding new ones. As the vision statement says, “Protecting cultural and natural landscapes that tell America’s complex history will help us learn from our past, honor our ancestors and educate future generations.” 

America’s complex history includes a great many stories about how places that are now national parks used to be inhabited by indigenous tribal nations. There are also many stories about how it came to be that now, when we do talk about such habitation, we use the past tense. These stories do not get told as often, or in as much detail, as they should. I believe that the American people would benefit from greater involvement of Native people in the telling of these stories, including the development of exhibits at visitor centers and the composition of text for historical markers, but also in actually speaking to groups of park visitors. 

Earlier this year I received an invitation to attend an organizational meeting of the Next 100 Coalition. I’m glad I was able to make it. Most of the people in the room were representatives of grassroots, regional, or national organizations. I wasn’t representing any organization, but, rather, considered my participation to be in the nature of a subject matter expert, drawing on my four decades of experience in Indian law and policy. In addition to myself, there were a few other tribal members in the room that day. A few Indian people, of course, is better than none, but more would have definitely been better. There is a great deal of diversity among tribal nations, diversity that, in my experience, many non-Indian people just do not have the background to really appreciate. In my view, a good way to help foster appreciation for the diversity among tribal nations is to add more tribal voices to the conversation.

So, at that organizational meeting of the Next 100 Coalition, I joined in the conversation. The main objective was to formulate a list of steps that could be taken by the Park Service and other land managing federal agencies toward realizing the coalition’s vision of enhanced diversity. One of the steps that I suggested was ultimately included in the coalition’s list. 

That item was to ask the Park Service to complete the process of revising its regulations in order to make it legal for tribal members to gather plants at traditional locations that are now within national park areas. The Park Service had published a proposed rule on this topic in April 2015. In my view, the proposed rule did not go as far as it should have, but it was an improvement over the status quo. It did provide a path through which it would no longer be illegal for tribal members to conduct traditional gathering practices. I was concerned that it might get lost in a pile of other projects and not get issued as a final rule. In May, I participated in a meeting that the coalition arranged with White House officials and staff, and I got the chance to put in a few words for finalizing the plant gathering rule. I also wrote an op-ed about the issue which was published in the San Francisco Chronicle. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but by the end of June, Secretary Jewell announced the promulgation of the final rule.

The Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday on August 25. The next 100 years has begun. The vision of the Next 100 Coalition will take some time to realize, and the groups that comprise the coalition are committed over the long term. In the near term, the coalition will continue to hold meetings with federal officials and partner organizations that can help with parts of the vision, such as increasing the diversity of the workforce employed by land managing agencies. Will programs to increase workforce diversity be successful with respect to Native Americans? I think the chances for success will be improved if there are Native people engaged in the discussions. There are some important ways in which Native people are different from other communities of color, and, when it comes to projects such as recruiting young tribal members to work for land managing agencies, those differences will need to be taken into account. For example, workforce diversity programs should include outreach efforts to educational institutions, and to reach Native young people, those efforts will need to reach tribal schools, colleges, and universities. People who have been educated in such tribal institutions may well have valuable insights into how to conduct such outreach.

The groups in the Next 100 Coalition can support issues such as the proposed Bears Ears and Gold Butte National Monuments (both are mentioned in its policy document) and push issues such as workforce diversity, but they could use some help from Native people in speaking to such issues from their experiences. There are, I suspect, many other ways in which more Native American involvement in the Next 100 could be beneficial for tribal nations as well as for the other organizations that comprise the coalition. The Next 100 Coalition’s vision of greater diversity and inclusiveness in taking care of and using our national public lands is a good vision.

Further information: Next 100 Coalition

Dean B. Suagee is an attorney with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP, in Washington, D.C. As a member of the Cherokee Nation, he was motivated to become a lawyer and practice Indian law. 

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