National Park Service Announces Policies to ‘Strengthen Tribal Co-Stewardship’ of Park Lands & Waters with Indigenous Peoples

by Jon D. B.

Moving forward, the National Park Service (NPS) plans strengthen the role of American Indian, Alaska Native Tribes, and the Native Hawaiian Community in federal land management.

Today, NPS is issuing new policy guidance to strengthen Tribal co-stewardship of national park lands and waters. Specifically, the guidance aims to improve national parks by strengthening the role of American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes, Alaska Natives entities, and the Native Hawaiian Community in federal land management.

To do so, NPS’s new co-stewardship policy provides a stronger framework (far beyond existing, traditional consultation) to help park managers facilitate and support working relationships with Tribes.

“All national parks are located on Indigenous ancestral lands and this policy will help ensure Tribal governments have an equal voice in the planning and management of them,” explains NPS Director Chuck Sams. “I have been an advocate for co-stewardship of federal lands for more than 27 years and I am pleased to see a national emphasis placed on this necessary work.”

Sams, the first NPS Director of Indigenous descent, adds that “Through increased and collaborative engagement with Tribes, Alaska Native entities, and the Native Hawaiian Community, we will make better land management decisions, acknowledge and hopefully heal some deep wounds, benefit from Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and better interpret the history of the lands we administer and all the plants and animals that live in them.”

Department of the Interior Includes Branches Outside National Park Service in New Indigenous Co-Stewardship Policies

The Department of the Interior also announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management will participate in these new co-stewardship policies. This move supports an “all-of-government approach to inclusive and equitable federal land management,” NPS cites in their media release.

Each new policy will further the directives from the Joint Secretarial Order 3403. Signed by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture during the 2021 White House Tribal Nations Summit, this order outlines how the two Departments will strengthen Tribal co-stewardship efforts.

But what does this all mean? Broadly, co-stewardship includes formal co-management (through legal authorities), collaborative and cooperative management (often accomplished through agreements), and self-governance agreements (including annual funding agreements), NPS explains.

NPS currently holds over 80 co-stewardship agreements with Indigenous Peoples. Only four of these, however, outline and allow for co-management of national parks. Those are:

  • Canyon de Chelly National Monument
  • Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
  • Grand Portage National Monument
  • Big Cypress National Preserve

Moving forward, NPS is committed to identifying and increasing co-stewardship through opportunities like these:

  • Acadia National Park has been involved in a multi-year project with the Wabanaki Nations of Maine on traditional gathering of sweetgrass within the park. The interdisciplinary work focuses on Wabanaki stewardship approaches through centuries of learned Indigenous knowledge. Also, cultural protocols to assert Indigenous sovereignty within natural and cultural resource management on ancestral lands. This research project aims to provide a template of culturally appropriate engagement between Native American gatherers and national parks.
  • Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island have cooperative agreements in place with the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohicans. Also, the Delaware Tribe of Indians, and the Delaware Nation. The agreements were critical pieces of the park’s efforts to greatly improve visitor experiences on Liberty Island and Ellis Island.
  • Mount Rainier National Park is also collaborating with the Nisqually Tribe. A report on the results of five years of traditional plant gathering research on three species traditionally harvested by Nisqually tribal members on Mount Rainier s forthcoming.

Today’s new policy “cements and expands existing NPS policies and practices related to co-stewardship,” NPS adds. It also moves to supplement existing guidance found in Executive Orders. Presidential Memoranda, statutes, regulations, judicial decisions, Secretary’s Orders, and other Departmental guidance will also see adjustment.

In total, this co-stewardship movement is a giant step towards restoring the management of Indigenous lands to Indigenous Peoples.