National Parks System

Posted: Aug 31, 2010

The National Park Service (“NPS”), a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages national parks and related areas in accordance with federal law and regulation, presidential proclamation, and legal precedent. The main federal laws directing establishment, purpose, management, and use of the Park System are:

  • The Antiquities Act of 1906
  • The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 and its 1970 and 1978 amendments
  • The Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act of 1935
  • The National Trails System Act of 1968
  • The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968
  • The National Park Service Omnibus Management Act of 1998

The Park Service must also comply with other federal legislation, such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, in creating regulations and policies pursuant to those regulations. Additionally, under the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Department of the Interior, through the NPS, has a continuing obligation to study and recommend suitable tracts of land for wilderness designation. More information can be found in the Red Lodge Clearinghouse sections on NEPA and the Wilderness Act.

The National Park System includes a several unit designations, sections of the National Trails System and Wild and Scenic River System, and most National Monuments. The Organic Act and the Management Act are the primary laws on purposes and management of the Park System. Additionally, the Rivers and Trails Acts and the Antiquities Act of 1906 affect management and govern designation of rivers, most trails, and most monuments. The Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act of 1935 is a basis for many ancillary functions of the NPS that occur outside of Park System management, such as maintaining historic registers. More information can be found in the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Protected Corridors and Antiquities Act sections.

With the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service approaching in 2016, a good deal of attention is focused on the agency's heritage and challenges, including budgetary issues, cross-border resource management challenges, and projected impacts of climate change. In the fall of 2011, the NPS released a forward-looking report proposing new partnerships and funding sources. The agency also provides assessments of park conditions in its "State of the Parks" reports.

Key Concepts

Purposes of the Park System

Under the Organic Act, the “fundamental purpose” of the National Park System is two-fold: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life” and “to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” This language is currently codified at 16 U.S.C. § 1, which also created the NPS to administer the parks and monuments. In general, uses of the Park System must conform to this two-pronged stated purpose. 

The purposes of national parks and related areas were re-affirmed in 1970 and 1978 by Congress. The General Authorities Act of 1970 also created a unified Park System and gave individual units comparable legal status. In 1978 the Redwood Act further reiterated the mandate of the Organic Act using somewhat different language, stating that the NPS is to manage the Park System “in light of the high public value and integrity” of the system and is not to allow uses “in derogation” of the system’s “values and purposes.” Thus, activities like hunting, mineral exploration, and logging are generally prohibited, although certain timber cutting and hunting activities are allowed to preserve park resources. 

Appropriate and prohibited visitor uses are based on the Park System’s purposes, as specified by federal law, as well as on regulation. These uses are elaborated on in section 8 of the 2006 Management Policies. They include: 

Generally allowable uses

  • Boating
  • Camping
  • Bicycling
  • Fishing
  • Hiking
  • Horseback riding
  • Backpacking
  • Outdoor sports
  • Picnicking
  • Scuba diving
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Caving
  • Mountain and rock climbing
  • Earth caching
  • Swimming

Allowed in specific units after a determination by managers that resources will not be impaired

  • Aircraft use
  • Off-road bicycling
  • Hang gliding
  • Off-road vehicle use
  • Snowmobiling
  • Livestock grazing 

Prohibited unless specifically allowed in a unit’s enabling legislation

  • Hunting
  • Mineral exploration
  • Logging

The two purposes of the Park System – resource preservation and public use – can sometimes conflict. In situations where openness for public use would result in impairment of a resource, under current law and NPS policy preservation is to win out. However, the balance of preservation and public use has been the subject of ongoing controversy, as detailed in Controversies: Recreation, Commercial Activities, and Preservation. 

Beyond system-wide legislation, executive orders, available on the NPS’s Policy Related Executive Order website, affect the Park System as a whole, for example by prohibiting smoking in federal facilities or by requiring the prohibition of snowmobiling if it negatively impacts park resources. Emerging issues include profit sharing and intellectual property ownership when private interests use park resources for bioprospecting. See "Park profit sharing gets mixed reviews," Jackson Hole News & Guide, 11/25/09.

Purposes of Individual Park System Units

Individual units within the Park System are created by specific acts of Congress. When creating a new unit within the Park System Congress can specify additional, unit-specific purposes and resulting uses in the units’ enabling legislation. This unit-specific legislation is codified at 16 U.S.C. §§ 1-18(f)(3) (2008) alongside National Park Service Organic Act. Unit specific legislation generally overrides system-wide legislation. However, because unit-specific legislation generally does address all potential uses, system-wide laws and executive orders – and the NPS-wide policies based on them – play a major role in determining the purposes and allowable uses in specific units.

In the specific case of national monuments, presidential proclamations can affect the allowable uses. This is because presidential proclamations creating national monuments under the Antiquities Act generally specify allowable uses in the specific units created, as elaborated on in the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Antiquities Act section. 

Additionally, NPS-administered Wilderness Area is subject to the uses allowable under the Wilderness Act and Park System units in Alaska that were created in 1980 are subject to the purposes stated in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. More information on Alaskan parks can be found in Process Essentials: Alaska’s National Parks.

Impairment of Resources 

Uses that impair a given Park System unit’s resources are generally prohibited unless specifically allowed by Congress in the unit’s enabling legislation. This means that management practices cannot generally undermine resource preservation and visitor uses that damage resources are prohibited.

The terms “derogation” (used in the 1978 Redwood Act) and “impairments” (used in the 1916 Organic Act) have been interpreted by the NPS to mean the same thing. However, current law does distinguish between prohibited “impairments” to resources and allowable “impacts” that are necessary to preserve public access, preserve resources, or fulfill legislatively-designated purposes. The distinction between “impacts” and “impairments” depends on the importance of the affected resource, the effect on preservation, and the degree of the impact. If a use impairs a resource, it is generally prohibited on the grounds that it is not consistent with the resource preservation purpose of the Park System. However, because Congress can specify additional uses in a park’s enabling legislation, certain uses that impair resources may be allowed. For example, Congress could specifically direct that some or all of a new unit be available for oil and gas leasing even though such a use clearly impairs system-wide purposes like resource preservation.

Notably, certain activities that are ordinarily prohibited as an impairment of resources are allowed in special circumstances. Specifically, while hunting is generally prohibited in the Park System, culling of dangerously overpopulated animal herds can be allowed. And while logging is generally prohibited, fuels reduction projects to limit wildfires may also be allowable. For example, in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, an elk management plan discusses the possibility of a “direct reduction with firearms” of the park’s overpopulated elk herd. 

The National Park Service

The National Park Service is a bureau within the Department of the Interior (DOI). The NPS manages the National Park System. 

The NPS is overseen by the Assistant Secretary of Fish and Wildlife And Parks, one of the DOI’s four assistant secretaries, and who is supervised by the Deputy Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of the Interior. Inside the NPS, the director sits at the top of the hierarchy. The Washington, D.C. office of the NPS hosts both the Office of the Director and six Associate Directors. A full organizational chart is available on the NPS’s website. The Associate Directors oversee the Regional Directors, who are in charge of planning, management, and finances for the Park Service’s seven regions.  


Image from the National Park Service website,

Each region contains several parks and other areas, each of which has a Park Superintendent or Manager who reports to his or her respective Regional Director. In total, the NPS has about 20,000 employees – including rangers, planning personnel, maintenance workers, and other classifications – and a budget of over $2 billion. The service also contracts with several hundred concessionaires to provide food, lodging, transportation, and other services to visitors.

Additionally, the NPS has its own police force – the U.S. Park Police – and operates six National Program Centers (overseen by the Washington office) that provide support to the NPS in areas like archeology, training, and preservation. 

Notable Park System unit classifications include:

  • National Parks, which are set aside for resource preservation and recreation, and where activities such as hunting, mineral exploration, and logging are generally prohibited.
  • National Preserves are similar to national parks, but some consumptive activities, such as hunting, have been permitted by Congress.
  • National Monuments can be designated legislatively or by presidential proclamation, and are generally objects of historic or scientific interest.
  • National Historic Site is one of many classifications used to protect areas of national historical significance.
  • National Recreation Areas are centered around areas popular for water-based recreation, or are located near urban areas.
  • National Rivers, and numerous subcategories, are protected streams that are part of the National Wild and Scenic River System.
  • National Trails, and subcategories like national historic trails, are protected trails that are often part of the National Trails System.

In 2012, the NPS announced that it is studying a new designation of the nation's first tribal national park, a section of Badlands National Park that falls on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that has been jointly managed by the NPS and the tribe for nearly 40 years.  If Congress approves the plan, primary management authority for the 133,000-acres "South Unit" will transfer to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, with the NPS playing a support role.

The National Park System

As of 2009, the NPS manages 84.6 million acres divided into 391 designated areas. The Park System includes twenty-one unit classifications, such as national parks, national monuments, historic sites, recreation areas, scenic rivers, lake and seashores, and scenic trails.. The Park System also has an ‘other’ classification that includes unique units, such as the White House and the National Mall. A full list of classification types can be found on the NPS’s Designation of National Park System Units webpage. Links to individual parks can be found on the NPS’s Find a Park webpage

National Park Service Preservation Activities Outside of the Park System

In addition to its primary duty of overseeing the Park System, the NPS administers a number of preservation programs. These programs are authorized under a number of congressional acts and administrative regulations created pursuant to the policy articulated in the Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act of 1935 of preserving nationally significant and historic sites and buildings. These programs include registers of historic and natural places, financial and other aid to state, local, tribal, and private organizations, preservation tax incentives, and similar preservation efforts.

Process Essentials

Process Essentials: The Creation of the National Park System 

The first national park – in both the United States and the world – was created by the U.S. Congress in 1872 with the passage of the Yellowstone National Park Act, codified with amendments at 16 U.S.C. §§ 21-40 (2008). The Yellowstone Act set aside more than one million acres in Wyoming and Montana, and delegated administration of the park to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Yellowstone was “set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Congress passed legislation creating several more national parks in the 34 years following the passage of the Yellowstone Act, including Crater Lake, Glacier, Mesa Verde, Mount Ranier, Sequoia, and Yosemite. Congress also passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, granting the president the power to set aside, by presidential proclamation, “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal lands as national monuments. President Theodore Roosevelt created 18 such monuments during his time in office. Management of these early parks and monuments was decentralized, and frequently fell to the military.

Congress passed the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act to unify and standardize management of the 14 parks and most of the 21 monuments already in existence. The act stated that the newly-created National Park Service was to promote and regulate the use of the parks and monuments both for public enjoyment and to preserve resources contained inside.

The 1930s saw two major legal changes in the NPS and the lands it managed. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt transferred management of all existing national monuments – previously managed by a number of federal entities, including the US Forest Service and the War Department – to the NPS. In 1935, Congress declared in the Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act that it was national policy “to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.” The act gave the Secretary of the Interior significant power to survey, acquire, and administer such historic and nationally significant sites, as well as a statutory duty to do so, and also created the National Park System Advisory Board. 

While the legislation passed in the first half of the 20th Century created a legal basis for the National Park Service and the areas it administered, legislation passed in the latter part of the 20th Century greatly expanded the system and its management practices. In 1968 Congress passed the National Trails System Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, creating a national trails system and a national wild and scenic rivers system, both of which are partially administered by the NPS as part of the National Park System. The size of the National Park System doubled in 1980 with Congress’s passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which, among other withdrawals of land from the public domain, set aside over 43 million acres for the Park System. The passage by Congress of the National Park Service Omnibus Management Act of 1998 resulted in several changes to park management, including a competitive bidding process for concessions contracts, a career development and training program for employees, and a research and recommendation process for the NPS to suggest that areas be added to the Park System. 

As with all parts of the nation's public land estate, the pressures on national parks change over time. In September 2009, the congressionally chartered National Parks Second Century Commission issued a report challenging Congress, the NPS, and other stakeholders to address concerns such as climate change, air and water pollution, a growing human population, and generation of children that "seems to have lost touch with nature and history to an unprecedented degree." 

Process Essentials: Addition of Land to the Park System

A major piece of legislation covering the Park System and other public lands, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 (H.R. 146) created three new Park System units including a historic park in New Jersey, a historic site in Arkansas, and a national battlefield in Michigan. The Act, which was composed of 164 separate bills, also changed the boundaries of ten existing Park System units. 

Land can be added to the National Park System, either as a new unit or an addition to an existing unit, in one of two ways. Congressional legislation is the main way for land to be added to the Park System. Land is usually added legislatively only after a recommendation and review process that involves Congress, the NPS, and affected state, local, tribal, and private parties. Alternatively, under the 1906 Antiquities Act the president has authority to designate national monuments by presidential proclamation, and most monuments are designated as part of the Park System; see the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Antiquities Act section for more information on this process. 

Recommendations for Listing

The recommendation and review process for addition of new Park System land is governed by the 1998 National Park Service Omnibus Management Act and by NPS administrative policy. As amended by the 1998 Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1(a)(5)(b) requires that the Secretary of the Interior annually submit to Congress “a list of areas recommended for study for potential inclusion in the National Park System.” Listing decisions are to be based on the following factors:

  • Areas with the greatest potential to meet the criteria of national significance, suitability for inclusion, and feasibility of inclusion
  • Characteristics, types of areas, and resources not already adequately represented in the Park System
  • Public petition and Congressional resolution

In compiling the list, the NPS is authorized to conduct preliminary examinations and to update past surveys. The NPS can consider requests from various public and private entities when surveying and listing areas. The NPS has developed certain factors, described in section 1.3 of its 2006 Management Policies, to be considered in evaluating whether a given area should be listed. Notably, the NPS ordinarily will not list areas such as gravesites, birthplaces, areas of religious use, and areas that have gained significance only in the last 50 years. After the NPS has compiled the list and transmitted it to Congress, actual study for inclusion can be undertaken only on Congressional authorization. 

Studies for Inclusion 

The study for inclusion must address a number of factors, outlined in 16 U.S.C. 1(a)(5)(c). These include the rarity or threat to resources in the area to be protected, public use potential, educational potential, costs of inclusion, socioeconomic impacts on members of the public, public support for inclusion, potential alternative ways to protect resources, and the effectiveness of alternative forms of protection. Additionally, the study must evaluate whether a resource meets three criteria for inclusion in the Park System:

  • National significance as “one of the most important examples of a particular resource type in the country”
  • Suitability for inclusion
  • Feasibility of inclusion

The NPS must hold at least one public meeting near the study area, allow an appropriate opportunity for public involvement, and notify private parties and local, state, and tribal governments of the process. The study report must be completed within three years of the study’s funding.

Thus, a Congressional addition of land to the Park System has several prerequisite steps: the initial listing decision by the NPS; the passage of legislation ordering an inclusion study be conducted by the NPS; and the passage of legislation adding an area to the Park System. 

Process Essentials: Overlapping Classifications for Protected Land 

The National Park System is one of several systems created by Congress for the purpose of protecting land and managing resources. Others include the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) National Landscape Conservation System, the U.S. Forest Service’s (the Forest Service) National Forest System, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s(USFWS) National Wildlife Refuge and National Fish Hatchery systems. There are also several systems and classifications that are managed by both the NPS and other federal agencies, including:

  • The Wilderness Preservation System, which encompass about 106 million acres of wilderness areas, includes 44 million acres managed by the NPS. Other wilderness areas created by Congress are managed by the Forest Service, BLM, and USFWS. Allowable uses in wilderness areas are generally more restricted than those allowed in other protected areas, and are defined in the Wilderness Act. For more information, see the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Wilderness Act section. 
  • The National Wild and Scenic River System includes about 11,000 miles of river and is administered by four agencies: the, BLM, USFS, USFWS , and the NPS. Federal agencies must comply with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 when managing their respective lands within the system, which generally requires the rivers be free flowing. Under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act all portions of the system administered by the NPS and the USFWS are automatically part of the Park System and the wildlife refuge system, respectively, and must be managed in accordance with the laws governing each. More information can be found at the system’s website  and on the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Protected Corridors section.
  • The National Trails System is administered by the NPS and two other agencies: the Forest Service and the BLM. The system, which includes more than 50,000 miles of trail, is to be managed in accordance with the National Trails System Act of 1968 and, where trails have been designated as part of other systems, the laws governing those systems. More information can be found on the National Trail System website and on the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Protected Corridorssection.
  • National Monuments – notably the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah – are sometimes managed by agencies other than the NPS. In creating monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act, presidents can give management authority to other agencies to avoid the limited purposes that Park System land is managed for. More information on the rationale behind non-NPS monument management can be found in a Congressional Research Service paper on monuments, and the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Antiquities Act section.

Process Essentials: Concessions 

Since the creation of Yellowstone Park in 1872, national park managers have had a relationship with private entities that provide services in parks and related areas. Some of the earliest advocates of national park creation were western railroads that built tourist accommodations in the parks as a way to raise revenue. Since then, concessions contracts proved to be an effective way to provide increasing numbers of visitors with services such as lodging, transportation, guide services, outfitters, retail, and food. 

Currently, the 1998 National Park Service Omnibus Management Act and NPS regulations govern the relationship between the NPS and approximately 630 concessionaires. The 1998 Act’s concessions provisions, codified at 16 U.S.C. §§ 5951-66 , contained a number of reforms from prior concessions laws. In ordinary circumstances contracts can be issued only after a prospectus seeking proposals is issued and the responses are evaluated, although some established concessionaires have ‘preferred offeror’ status, meaning they can amend their proposals to match the terms of proposals the NPS deems to be more favorable. Absent special conditions and approval by the Secretary of the Interior, contracts must be for ten years or less. Rates charged to the public by concessionaires must be “reasonable” and are subject to approval by the NPS, and franchise fees paid by concessionaires to the NPS must also be reasonable and be spelled out in the contract. Contracts are to be awarded only when “necessary and appropriate for public use and enjoyment of the unit,” and then only when “consistent to the highest practicable degree with the preservation and conservation of the resources and values of the unit.”

Private entities may be issued Commercial Use Authorizations instead of concessions contracts for uses that generate less than $25,000 in gross annual receipts, make only incidental use of park resources, or are associated with children’s camps, outdoor clubs, and similar organizations. Such authorizations must be consistent with the individual park’s purpose and consistent with the highest preservation standards, but can be issued even when not necessary to providing visitor services. 

While the 1998 Act was a major reform over prior law, it has been criticized as not doing enough to reform concessions, particularly in light of the Park System’s maintenance backlog, described in a Congressional Reporting Service paper on NPS management.

Concessions contracts in Alaskan parks must comply with the terms of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. For more information on this, see Process Essentials: Alaska’s National Parks

Process Essentials: Research and Archaeology Support 

Under the 1998 National Park Service Omnibus Management Act, land in the Park System can be used for scientific research by academic institutions, private companies, and other parties. The NPS itself can solicit research, and can grant research rights, so long as the activity will pose “no threat” to resources in and public use of the Park System, and so long as the activity “is consistent with applicable laws and National Park Service management policies.” This means that, in general, research cannot involve removing plants, animals, or resources from the Park System. The 1998 Act also permits the Secretary of the Interior, through the NPS, to enter into “equitable, efficient benefits-sharing arrangements” (also called Cooperative Research and Development Agreements) with research organizations. Once research activity has been conducted, the NPS is required to use the results “to the full and proper” extent in making management decisions. More information on NPS permitting of independent research can be found in section 5.1  of the NPS’s 2006 Management Policies and on the NPS’s Inventorying and Monitoring Program website.
More information on the NPS’s archeology program, which includes the operation of three regional centers, can be found at the Archeology Program website. Any archeological activity conducted in the Park System must comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, codified at 25 U.S.C. §§ 3001-13, which requires that federal or tribal officials be notified of inadvertent discoveries of Native American remains and that intentional excavation be undertaken only with permission. 

Process Essentials: Preservation Programs            

There are a number of programs – many operated by the NPS – designed to encourage state, local, tribal, and private preservation efforts through the use of preservation lists, financial and tax incentives, and partnerships. Many of the programs were created by Congressional act (links go directly to U.S. code provisions) while others were administratively created. Examples of these programs include:

  • The Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 (H.R. 146), which included 164 separate bills, authorized several NPS programs. These include: Preserve America, a grant program for historic preservation and education in specified communities; Save America’s Treasures, a grant program for the preservation of nationally significant collections and historic properties; Battlefield Protection, a grant program to help state and local governments acquire nationally significant battlefields; and Route 66 Corridor, a program authorizing the NPS to help Route 66 Corridor preservation efforts.
  • The National Register of Historic Places , created by the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, codified at 16 U.S.C. § 470, is a list of more than 80,000 properties owned at the federal, state, local, private, and tribal level. Listed properties must be “significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture.” Land can be added to the register by Congressional act, state and tribal historic preservation offices, or by the NPS, and listing can entitle property owners to tax benefits. The registry also includes the about 2,500 properties in the National Historic Landmarks Program.
  • The National Natural Landmarks Program, created by administrative act in 1962, is a list of about 600 properties. Listed properties must be of “national significance.” Federal regulations establishing and governing the program can be found here.
  • The National Heritage Areas Program consists of 37 properties designated individually by Congress over the past two decades. The heritage areas include mixed ownership (state, local, and federal public lands, as well as private lands), with the NPS providing irregular funding, technical assistance, and federal recognition. Although there are no established standards for when an area should be designated, the program has been used for the purposes of preservation, tourism promotion, and community revitalization.
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund, created by the Land and Water Conservation Act in 1965, codified at 16 U.S.C. § 460(l)(4)-(11), is a grant program that provides matching funds for state and local governments to acquire and develop “outdoor recreation resources.”
  • The Tribal Heritage Preservation Program, created administratively in 1990, has to date awarded about $17 million to 460 Native American and Alaska Native tribes. The funds are to be used for cultural preservation, the preservation of sacred and historic places, and the establishment of tribal historic preservation offices.
  • Partnerships with state and local governments are supported by language in the 1998 National Park Service Omnibus Management Act provisions, codified at 16 U.S.C. § 1(a)(2)(l)(2), which allows cooperative management agreements if they “will allow for more effective and efficient management.” Other partnerships – including with tribal governments, non-profits, and even for-profit entities – are authorized under a 2004 executive order and are supported by section 1.10 of the NPS’s 2006 Management Policies. Links to non-profit partners can be found on the NPS website.
  • Preservation Tax Incentives, authorized by 1986 changes to the Internal Revenue Code, authorize the Secretary of the Interior through the NPS to issue certifications of significance for historic places, and to issue certifications of rehabilitation that will allow the owners of such places to receive tax incentives. Federal regulations related to these tax incentives can be found here.
  • The Federal Lands to Parks Program, created by Congress in 1949 and currently authorized by 40 U.S.C. § 550(e), has resulted in the transfer of about 150,000 acres of federal land to state and local governments for the purpose of creating parks and recreation areas. Such transfers may be sales or donations, are made by the Secretary of the Interior through the NPS, and must be authorized by the General Services Administration.
  • The Historic Surplus Properties Program, created by Congress in 1949 and currently authorized by 40 U.S.C. § 550(h), has resulted in the transfer of about 100 historic properties from federal ownership to state and local governments for the purpose of creating historic monuments. The program allows the General Services Administration to transfer federal property that is “suitable and desirable for use as a historic monument for the benefit of the public,” and must be made on the recommendation of the NPS.
  • The Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program is an administratively-created program described as the “community assistance arm” of the NPS, and provides conservation advice to state, local, and tribal governments, nonprofit organizations, and community groups. The program has provided advice for groups that, in total, preserve about 700 miles of river, 1,400 miles of trails, and 63,700 acres of open space.

Process Essentials: Changes to and Restrictions on Public Use

In general, changes to allowable public uses in a given Park System unit must be published in the Federal Register, subjected to a sixty day comment period, and comply with other requirements on federal regulations if the changes are significant. Under 36 C.F.R. § 1.5(b), a non-emergency changes must be published as a special rule if it is “of a nature, magnitude and duration that will result in a significant alteration in the public use pattern of the park area, adversely affect the park's natural, aesthetic, scenic or cultural values, require a long-term or significant modification in the resource management objectives of the unit, or is of a highly controversial nature.” This process can be lengthy, as it generally requires various approvals and studies by the NPS director, and a written justification by the park superintendent. Public notice requirements, described on the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Federal Laws and Regulations section, also apply.

Under federal regulation 36 C.F.R. § 1.5, park superintendents may place reasonable visiting hour limitations on the public, impose public use limits, close areas of a Park System unit to the public or to a specific use, and designate specific areas for specific uses. Additionally, under 36 C.F.R. § 1.6, public uses can be regulated by the issuance of permits. Beyond these minor limits on public access, public uses are generally determined on both a system wide and unit specific basis, as elaborated on in Key Concepts sections on park purposes and resource impairment.
Public access to the Park System is generally not free, although this varies on a unit by unit basis. As noted in Process Essentials: Concessions, concessionaires must charge reasonable prices for services. The NPS itself may charge admission fees – particularly for recreation areas – but has a pass program, which is described in the NPS National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass website

Process Essentials: Wilderness in the Parks 

Over half of the National Park System, or 43.6 million acres, consists of wilderness areas. NPS management of its portion of the Wilderness Preservation System, and study of potential new wilderness areas, is governed by the Wilderness Act of 1964 and NPS policy. More information on wilderness designation and management in general can be found in the Red Lodge Clearinghouse section on the Wilderness Act, and in provisions of the Wilderness Act codified at 16 U.S.C. §§ 1131-36.

Wilderness Study

The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture are required under the Wilderness Act to make an annual report to Congress on the status of the Wilderness Preservation System and that can include areas recommended for wilderness designation. Thus, the Wilderness Act provides statutory authority for Agriculture and Interior Department land management agencies, including the NPS, to study areas under their authority for possible classification as wilderness areas.

New Lands for Park Wilderness

Composed of 164 separate bills, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 (H.R. 146), added over 2 million acres of wilderness. About 500,000 acres are located within Park System units in California and Colorado.

The basic process for the designation of Park System land as wilderness area involves an initial eligibility assessment by the NPS, a subsequent wilderness study by the NPS, a proposal by the NPS for wilderness designation to the Secretary of the Interior, and a recommendation by the president through the secretary to Congress, which makes the final designation of land as wilderness. While wilderness study is usually undertaken at the discretion of the NPS, such studies can also be ordered by Congress. If a wilderness study determines that land possesses wilderness characteristics but is also the site of a non-wilderness use, the secretary can recommend that Congress designate it as potential wilderness, and delegate authority to the secretary to designate the land as wilderness when the non-conforming use is eliminated. The assessment process (including public notice requirements) and the study process (including NEPA and other federal law compliance) are outlined in section 6.2 of the NPS’s 2006 Management Policies. In particular, the public must be informed of the NPS’s intention to conduct an assessment and of the determination of eligibility or ineligibility, and final determinations regarding eligibility must be published in the Federal Register.
After the NPS has determined that a parcel of Park System land has wilderness qualities, its management policies require that it take no action to diminish the parcel’s wilderness eligibility until Congress and the president (through the Secretary of the Interior) have taken final action. Such action is generally undertaken after the NPS conducts a formal wilderness study further examining the parcel’s wilderness qualities, although under NPS policies such a study can be combined with the eligibility assessment if the full document can be completed in a “timely manner.”

Wilderness Management

Unlike other federal agencies that manage parts of the Wilderness Preservation System, the NPS’s management of wilderness areas is governed by policies instead of formal regulations.
The NPS’s wilderness management policies can be found in section 6.3 of the service’s 2006 Management Policies. In general, the NPS will manage designated wilderness areas in compliance with the Wilderness Act and its own internal policies. These policies prohibit management action that would have a significant impact on wilderness resources and allow management actions only when necessary for administration and when all impacts are minimized. This “minimum requirement” policy applies to various management practices, such as the administrative use of motor vehicles, construction of administrative facilities, allowance of scientific study, use of trails and signs, and fire management. Visitor uses are allowed only when they do not degrade the character of wilderness areas, meaning leave no trace camping and similar principles are generally required and vehicles – motor and otherwise – are prohibited (except in Alaska, see Process Essentials: Alaska’s National Parks). Special events are generally prohibited, commercial activities are allowed only if they are “necessary and appropriate” for visitor services, grazing of livestock is allowed only by Congressional act, and the NPS generally will attempt to extinguish previously existing mineral claims in wilderness areas.
Under NPS policy land with wilderness characteristics will be managed similarly to designated wilderness areas. Potential wilderness will be managed as wilderness to the extent that nonconforming uses allow, and land eligible for wilderness designation (but not designated as such after a wilderness study was undertaken) will be managed to preserve its eligibility for future designation.

Process Essentials: Management Laws, Regulations, Policies, and Planning Rules

The Park System is managed in accordance to federal law, executive order, federal regulation, and NPS policy. Federal law governing Park System management contain broad, system-wide mandates on park purposes and uses coupled with specific sections on individual units or subgroups of units. Regulations follow a similar pattern, with many of the most specific provisions relevant to only a single unit. Park management, in turn, is based on a combination of broad, system-wide policy and specific management requirements for individual units.
Management planning generally occurs in the form of unit-specific general and comprehensive management plans created pursuant to federal law, as well as numerous subordinate plans created pursuant to NPS policy. Federal regulations may affect management, but unlike federal law and NPS policy, federal regulations do not mandate specific management planning practices.

Management Planning Requirements Under Federal Law

Under provisions of the National Park Service Organic Act, found at 16 U.S.C. § 1(a)(7)(b), the NPS is required to maintain and periodically update unit-specific general management plans that must contain information relating to:

  • Resource preservation measures
  • Information on development related to public enjoyment of the unit, including locations, types, and degrees of development, timing of planned development, and associated costs
  • Information on existing and planned visitor carrying capacity for all areas of the unit
  • Planned modifications of the unit’s external boundaries

Instead of general management plans, NPS-managed portions of the National Wild and Scenic River System and the National Trails System must be managed under comprehensive management plans created pursuant to the provisions of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act. Under provisions of the Rivers Act, found at 16 U.S.C. § 1281, the NPS must create management plans that balance development and preservation to “protect and enhance the values which caused it to be included in [the] system without [unnecessarily] limiting other uses that do not substantially interfere with public use and enjoyment of these values.” Similarly, under provisions of the Trails Act, found at 16 U.S.C. § 1244(e), the NPS must assist the Interior Department in preparing management plans for areas of the system under its authority; plans are required to specify resources to be protected, cooperative agreements with state, local, tribal, and private entities, carrying capacity of trails, acquisition agendas for nearby property, and a development agenda.

Federal Regulations Affecting Management

General regulations affecting public use and management of the Park System are created by the NPS’s director and other Interior Department officials pursuant to federal law and executive order. Most NPS-specific regulations are found at 36 CFR, parts 1 to 199, although regulations created by other agencies and relevant to Park System management – for example, those covering endangered species and environmental assessments – are located elsewhere. Links to NPS-related regulations can be found on the NPS’s Policy Related Regulations webpage. The regulations generally cover what public uses are and are not permitted, the removal of plants and animals in specific circumstances, mineral extraction where permitted, concessions, and other subjects addressed by relevant federal legislation and executive order.
Notably the regulations do not mandate any general management planning process, although such a process is required for some units by federal law and NPS policy. This may be because unlike other federal land management agencies, such as the Forest Service and BLM, the NPS does not have a mandate to manage the Park System for multiple uses.

Management Planning Policies

The NPS’s 2006 Management Policies mandate system-wide management policies and unit-specific planning requirements.
The NPS has three levels of system-wide management policies:

  • The NPS periodically publishes its management policies in a single document, which is the main source for NPS policy. The most recent set of management policies were drafted by a working group appointed by the NPS’s director and were published in 2006; previous publications were in 2001 and 1988. The 2006 Management Policies can be found on the NPS’s Management Policies webpage.
  • Director’s orders supplement and amend specific policies in between the irregularly published policies. Current director’s orders can be found on the NPS’s Director’s Orders and Related Documents webpage.
  • Guidebooks and reference manuals, that contain detailed information related to field operations and the operation of NPS programs, supplement the policies.

Management plans of individual parks and related areas are set by superintendents and managers, and generally must conform to both system-wide policy and to unit specific planning requirements, which are found sections 2.2 and 2.3 of the NPS’s 2006 Management Policies. Additionally, plans must comply with National Environmental Policy Act requirements. Levels of unit-specific management planning include:

  • Foundation statements are based on either a park’s enabling legislation or, in the case of national monuments created under the Antiquities Act, the unit’s presidential proclamation. These statements include information on park purposes (as determined by the enabling legislation and by system-wide laws and executive orders), resources, and primary themes. These statements are generally developed soon after a unit is created and are generally changed only to reflect new scientific information; changes are generally made during the general management planning process.
  • General management plans (GMPs), or comprehensive management plans in the case of units in the national trails and rivers systems, are prepared in compliance with the requirements of 16 U.S.C. § 1(a)(7)(b), and generally provide broad directives and goals. These plans include information on zoning, on the scientific basis for decisions, on watercourses, and on alternative management goals, and are prepared by interdisciplinary teams of park managers and scientists. Preparation and revision of GMPs must be in compliance with NEPA’s environmental assessment and public participation requirements, and also with NPS policy requirements for public participation opportunities and cooperative planning with other land management entities. General management plans are usually published in the Federal Register. Additionally, plans for units in the rivers and trails systems must comply with federal law governing those systems, and units in Alaska must comply with management and conservation provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act found at 16 U.S.C. § 3191. GMPs are to be reviewed and updated “as necessary,” but generally at least once every 10 to 15 years.
  • Program management plans cover specific program areas in a given unit, such as fire prevention, visitor uses, resource stewardship, and asset management. These plans are intended to link the broad directions of GMPs to specific recommended actions, and to provide “comprehensive recommendations about specific actions needed to achieve and maintain the desired resource conditions and visitor experiences.”
  • Implementation plans “focus on how to implement activities and projects needed to achieve the desired conditions identified in the general management plan, strategic plan, and program management planning documents,” and are generally the highest level of plan that contains technical and complex information, although such details depending on projects’ timetables. These plans are developed by technical specialty teams, and are created when necessary to achieve the goals specified in more comprehensive plans.
  • Annual performance plans and reports cover fiscal year goals and progress in achieving those goals, and are developed as part of the NPS budget process.

Strategic planning is an additional level of planning that occurs at the system-wide, regional, and unit-specific levels. At the unit-specific level, strategic plans are similar to GMPs in that they cover long term goals, but these plans are developed every one to five years without the comprehensive resource assessment, consultation, and compliance requirements of GMPs. All forms of strategic plans must have the following parts:

  • A mission statement addressing purposes
  • Long term goals and performance targets
  • Strategies to accomplish long term goals
  • A description of the relationship between annual goals and long term goals
  • A description of the basis of long term goals
  • A section describing engagement strategies for the public, local communities, tribes, and other stakeholders
  • A description of external factors that may influence goal achievement
  • A list of parties that took part in developing the plan

While all planning documents must be based on the purposes stated in the Organic Act, in cases where the legislation creating an individual Park System unit specifies purposes beyond those specified in the 1916 Organic Act, park superintendents and managers can depart from system-wide policy.

New policies emerge to address new challenges in national park management. For example, in response to growth in research activities in national parks that result in commercial applications, the NPS developed a policy that will allow parks to negotiate payments from researchers who use the results of their studies for commercial products or services. Congress first authorized the agency to enter into such arrangements in 1998, but controversies surrounding bioprospecting in Yellowstone National Park prompted the NPS to rework its policy. 
Further information about the relationship between laws and executive orders, federal regulation, and NPS policy can be found on the NPS’s Policy Development webpage

Process Essentials: Indian Tribes and the National Parks

The relationship between the NPS and Indian tribes, Alaska natives, and Pacific islanders is governed by executive order, federal statute, and treaties. Under section 1.11 of the NPS’s 2006 Management Policies, “parks protect resources, sites, and vistas that are highly significant for the tribes. Therefore, the Service will pursue an open, collaborative relationship with American Indian tribes to help tribes maintain their cultural and spiritual practices.” Thus, under NPS policy and executive order, the NPS is required to consult with tribal governments and comply with various Federal Register publication requirements on any agency action that will directly impact tribal resources or affect tribal self government. Additionally, NPS rules affecting tribal governments, trust resources, or other rights – including those based on treaties – are to be developed in collaboration with affected tribes; any NPS action that will affect tribal trust resources must explicitly identify the impact. Communications with tribal governments are to be conducted using mutually acceptable methods and are to take in to account special circumstances in individual parks.

In December 2012, the U.S. Department of Interior joined other federal land and resource management agencies in signing a memorandum of understanding to coordinate the protection of Indian sacred sites and to improve tribal access to such sites.


Process Essentials: Mineral Claims in the Parks

The making and development of mineral claims and leases in the Park System is governed under the 1976 Mining in the Parks Act, codified at 16 U.S.C. §§ 1901-12, laws affecting specific parks, Interior Department regulation, and NPS policies based on the regulations. In general, mineral extraction – both of energy and hardrock resources – is prohibited in national parks and related areas because it often conflicts with the purposes of the Park System. However, energy mineral leasing is allowed in some Park System units, energy leases and hardrock claims that predated a unit’s creation are valid, and privately owned minerals underlie some units. Section 8.7 of the NPS’s 2006 Management Policies outlines how the NPS will handle these situations and contains links to applicable regulations.
Most land in the Park System is closed to energy leasing, although Congress specifically left three national recreation areas open to new energy leasing in the areas’ enabling legislation. In those three units, leasing is available only in certain areas and only after a finding of no significant adverse affect by the regional director. Outside of those three units, valid leases may exist where leases were issued before a unit was created. A general overview of the federal oil and gas leasing system can be found in the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Oil and Gas Resource Development section.
Virtually all Park System land is closed to hardrock mineral exploration and new claims because mineral exploration conflicts with the purposes of the Park System, as outlined in the Organic Act and other federal legislation. More information on which can be found in the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Hardrock Mining section. There are still valid private claims because the creation of a unit does not extinguish already existing claims. However, under the 1976 Act the Secretary of the Interior has the power to limit the development of existing mineral claims if limits are “necessary or desirable for the preservation and management” of the land. Similarly, the NPS also has a general policy of buying out claims that conflict with park purposes or preservation standards.
Additionally, the historic use of “split estates” and land grants has resulted in private ownership of the mineral rights on some Park System land. The NPS has two separate regulatory regimes – one for oil and gas and one for other resources – to govern exploration for extraction of these resources. In general, the NPS will not allow development of these resources to adversely impact other park resources and park purposes, and in some situations may seek to acquire these rights. 

In November 0f 2009, the NPS announced its intention to revise (and tighten) regulation of oil and gas development in national park units. 

Process Essentials: Alaska’s National Parks

Fifty-five million acres of the 84 million acre Park System are located in Alaska, and the majority of that land is managed under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), codified at 16 U.S.C. §§ 3101-3233, and related regulations and policies. It should be noted that ANILCA covered 80 million acres in Alaska, half of which were not designated as part of the Park System, so some of the Act’s provisions – such as those relating to mineral exploration – do not apply to Park System land.
Passage of ANILCA marked the end of several years of struggle between conservationists, land management agencies, and Alaskan leaders over the designation of 80 million acres of significant federal land in Alaska. The Act was largely a compromise bill between conservationists, federal land management agencies, and Alaskan leaders; more information on events leading up to the Act’s passage can be found in the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Antiquities Act section. Thus, some activities that are prohibited in other areas of the Park System are allowed in Alaska, although many formerly popular activities, such as recreational hunting and certain forms of camping, were banned under the 1980 Act. The 1980 Act also imposed specific management planning requirements on the NPS, codified at 16 U.S.C. § 1391, which generally require consideration of the interests of local residents and of the unique characteristics of Alaska’s parks.
The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act requires that protected land be managed so as to “cause the least adverse impact possible on rural residents who depend upon subsistence uses of the resources,” and defines subsistence uses as “customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild, renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption.” What is and is not a subsistence use is determined in two ways:

  • Subsistence hunting is defined by park-specific Subsistence Resources Commissions, which have six members, three appointed by the Alaska governor and three by the Secretary of the Interior, and which are required to consult with the public and local and regional governments. The Secretary of the Interior is required to implement the recommendations of these commissions unless they violate recognized conservation principles, are contrary to a park’s purpose, or would undermine subsistence uses.
  • Other subsistence uses, such as fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, boating, and timber cutting are permitted under federal regulation, available here, although permits are generally required and park superintendents can temporarily close parks to such uses. These activities are generally allowed only by rural subsistence users. 

Certain activities, such as commercial fishing, are permitted by federal regulation in some areas of Alaska’s national parks even when not associated with subsistence use. Other activities, such as the building and maintenance of cabins, are generally allowed for subsistence users and are allowed in limited circumstances for non-subsistence users. 


Controversies: Recreation, Commercial Activities, and Preservation

Under the 1916 Organic Act, uses of the Park System are generally allowed only if they do not impair resources. However, in recent years there has been controversy about the appropriate balance between conservation and certain commercial and recreational activities. There have been efforts to increase the opportunity for commercially lucrative recreational activities like snowmobiling and mountain biking, to allow gun possession in parks, even at the potential expense of natural and cultural resources. Additionally, there has been recent controversy over oil and gas leasing near national parks. Because these efforts have generally focused on NPS or other federal policy and regulation rather than the Organic Act and specific parks’ enabling legislation, they have been criticized as an attempt to allow uses contrary to the NPS’s preservation mandate.

In April 2013, the National Parks Conservation Association published a report calling on the Bureau of Land Management to ensure that hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") activities on BLM lands do not impact adjacent national parks. The report focuses on impacts at five NPS units.

Mountain Biking in the National Parks

Mountain biking is prohibited in Wilderness Areas that are part of the Park System, and is also prohibited on many trails in non-wilderness Park System units. Decisions by park superintendents to designate trails in non-developed areas, which make up the vast majority of the Park System, as open to mountain biking generally trigger the Federal Register publication requirements for special regulations described in Process Essentials: Rules Governing Public Use of the Park System. The current federal regulation on mountain biking in parks is located at 36 C.F.R. § 4.30.
The current regulation – particularly the part requiring that decisions to open trails to biking be promulgated as special regulations – has been criticized by biking enthusiasts as causing few trails to be open to mountain biking. Following a lobbying and public relations effort by mountain biking organizations, including the International Mountain Biking Association, the Bush administration promulgated a proposed change to 36 C.F.R. § 4.30 that would generally remove the special regulation publication requirement for decisions to open trails to bikes, but maintain public notice and NEPA compliance requirements. The proposed change was published in the Federal Register on December 18, 2008. The proposed rule has not yet gone in to effect, however, although the public comment period closed in February 2009. Upon taking office, President Barack Obama imposed a "freeze" on new rules proposed at the end of President George W. Bush’s term, but it isn’t clear that this had any effect on the mountain biking rule, or if it is being otherwise revised by the NPS.

Gun Possession in the National Parks

Prior to 2008, federal regulations prohibited loaded weapons except in certain areas where target practice or hunting was specifically allowed by a park’s enabling legislation. The purpose of this prohibition was to protect park visitors and resources. However, in April 2008, at the urging of the National Rifle Association and similar groups, the Bush administration proposed changes to 36 C.F.R. § 2.4 and 50 C.F.R. § 27.42 to allow concealed weapons in both the Park System and in areas administered by the USFWS. The proposed rules, published in the Federal Register, were presented as a states’ rights issue, and would have made state laws allowing gun possession and concealed weapons apply to national parks and other protected areas within their borders. However, the proposed rules – though finalized in December 2008 – were blocked by a federal court injunction in March 2009 for failure to comply with the NEPA’s environmental analysis requirement; the court held that gun possession and potential use in the parks would certainly have some effect on park resources, and the Bush era NPS had failed to analyze these potential effects. The court decision is available at Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence v. Salazar , No. 08-2243 (D.D.C. Mar. 19, 2009).
Nonetheless, possession of a loaded gun in the Park System was legalized under an unrelated amendment to the Credit Card Act of 2009. The amendment, found at section 512 of the bill, took effect on February 22, 2010. The law allows visitors to carry handguns, rifles, shotguns and other firearms and concealed weapons into NPS units, but visitors are still prohibited from actually using the weapons inside park boundaries.  Visitors may not carry firearms into federal buildings, including visitor centers.

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park

Snowmobile use in Yellowstone and, to a lesser extent, other national parks is a major issue of contention facing the NPS, and has been the subject of both studies and legal dispute. Although snowmobiles have been used in Yellowstone for over forty years, a series of environmental impact statements, use plans, and lawsuits began in the late 1990s over snowmobiling’s effect on wildlife and pollution. Specifically, controversy has focused on the number of snowmobiles that will be allowed in to Yellowstone on a daily basis and whether snowmobile use will be phased out in the future.
Although snowmobile use in Yellowstone resulted in a Congressional hearing on the matter in 1967 (which resulted in snowmobiling being allowed), the modern controversy began in 1997. By the late 1990s snowmobile use was near an all time high; air pollution levels threatened to exceed Clean Air Act standards and unguided snowmobilers threatened wildlife. However, the initial controversy resulted not from snowmobiles but from allegations that bison with brucellosis used groomed trails to exit the park in the winter of 1996-97; over 1,000 animals had to be shot amid fears that they would transmit the disease to domestic cattle. As a result of this event the NPS agreed to draft a new winter use plan. This eventually led to a new snowmobile final rule published in 2001 that mandated that snowmobile use in Yellowstone be phased out. The new rule, published the day after President George W. Bush took office, was abandoned. In 2004 the NPS developed a new temporary use plan allowing 720 snowmobiles daily in Yellowstone, but requiring that the snowmobiles use best available technology to reduce pollution and noise, that group size be limited, and that groups use professionally guided tours. Daily use under the 2004 plan averaged about 275 snowmobiles, nonetheless producing noise and pollution that often exceeded thresholds set by the NPS.
Although the 2004 temporary plan was set to expire in 2007, environmental advocates successfully challenged a permanent plan developed in 2007 that allowed 540 snowmobiles per year on the grounds that that many snowmobiles would impair park resources. That decision is available at Greater Yellowstone Coalition v. Kempthorne, No. 07-2111 (D.D.C. Sept. 15, 2008). In a separate ruling by a separate federal court, Board of County Commissioners of the County of Park v. U.S. Department of the Interior, No. 07-CV-0319 (D. Wyo. Nov. 7, 2008), the 2004 plan was left in place while the NPS developed a new plan on snowmobiling in Yellowstone.

In January 2010, the NPS opened the public comment period for an EIS to guide the preparation of long-term regulations, saying that it would assess "air quality and visibility, wildlife, natural soundscapes, employee and visitor health and safety, visitor experience, and socioeconomics." The agency released a range of possibilities for future snowmobile use in the park in July 2010, ranging from allowing 720 machines daily to an outright ban.

In May 2011, the NPS released the new draft winter use plan, calling for 110-330 snowmobile trips per day and 30-80 snowcoach trips daily. The plan required guided snowmobile trips, and mandated use of the cleanest technology by the winter of 2014-15.  Click here for a story in the Jackson Hole newspaper about the new plan, here for an editorial supporting the proposal, here for one that finds it wanting, and here for an analysis of the new plan's restrictions in the context of past usage data.

In September 2011, the NPS announced that the temporary restrictions already in place would continue for one more year while the agency continued to study impacts on air quality and sound. Accordingly, on December 12, 2011, the NPS issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), Record of Decision, (ROD), and published a Final Rule that selected only the "transition year" portion of the preferred alternative, as an interim winter management measure for 2011-12.  This rule allows up to 318 commercially guided, "best available technology" snowmobiles and up to 78 commercially guided snowcoaches per day in Yellowstone for the 2011-12 season, and allows the park to continue to provide for motorized oversnow travel on the East Entrance road across Sylvan Pass.

In February 2012, the NPS convened a public meeting for a new scoping process to assess options for regulating motorized winter travel based on "sound events," or the noise created by one snowcoach or a
single group of travlers, rather than simply by the number of vehicles entering the park. Under that proposal, the park would allow 120 sound events per day, which could mean up to 840 snowmobiles and no snowcoaches, 120 snowcoaches and no snowmobiles, or some combination in between. Comments are open through March 9, 2012. For a description of the initial public hearing on this scoping process and a detailed background on the issue, see "Planners discuss snowmobiles, 'sound events,' at Yellowstone winter use meetings," Yellowstone Gate via WyoFile, 2/21/12. See also "Debate over Yellowstone winter use dates back more than 50 years," Yellowstone Gate via WyoFile, 3/27/12

In July 2012, the NPS released the new Winter Use Supplemental EIS, allowing up to 110 transportation events daily, with no more than 50 snowmobile events per day. This plan also allows one entry per day per entrance of a noncommercially group of up to five snowmobiles. For a story about the SEIS, see "Snowmobile groups like the new winter use plan," Billings Gazette, 7/5/12. These provisions were included in a final plan released in February 2013, and will be incorporated into a Record of Decision and long-term regulation in advance of the 2013-14 winter season.

Commercial Recreation in National Parks 

For much of its history, the major purpose of the Park System – as interpreted by courts and the NPS – was preservation. Public use, while also a primary purpose of the system, was allowed only where it did not impair park resources. Thus, uses likely to impact resources – off road vehicles, snowmobiles, off road biking, and similar activities – were limited in most parks. However, proponents of recreation and commercial use have criticized the preservation imperative as preventing full use of the parks.
In 2006, the NPS proposed management rules that would have shifted the primary purpose of the parks to public use, meaning recreational vehicle use would have expanded and businesses and concessionaires would have been given more influence in park management. Under the initially proposed rules, some impairment of park resources would have been allowed. Additionally, preservation was described not as an independent purpose, but as only being necessary to keep the parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” as mandated in the 1916 Organic Act. However, following a 120 day public comment period in which about 45,000 comments were made on the draft, the NPS revised the proposed 2006 management policies, and the final document maintains the focus on resource preservation.
Nonetheless, the conflict between public use and preservation – in practice, often between advocates of recreation and environmentalists – is ongoing, as the above sections on snowmobiling and mountain biking indicate.

Impacts of Resource Development Near National Parks

While oil and gas leasing is prohibited on Park System land unless specifically allowed in a given unit’s enabling legislation, oil and gas leasing near Park System land faces no such restrictions. This has led to clashes between the NPS and environmentalists on one side, and the oil and gas industry and the BLM on the other. The most recent clash occurred in December 2008 concerning a BLM sale of leases on 360,000 acres of land in Utah, some of which was near Dinosaur National Monument and Arches and Canyonlands national parks. However, in January 2009, a federal court temporarily enjoined finalization of 80 of the 131 leases sold on the grounds that the BLM had failed to weigh environmental impacts and impacts on the adjacent protected areas. The full opinion can be found at Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance v. Allred, No. 08-2187, 39 ELR 20018 (D.D.C. Jan. 17, 2009).
Despite the temporary restraining order, the controversy is ongoing; in February the new Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, withheld a number of the leases pending full environmental review, in April some of the holders of withheld leases appealed the action, and in June the Interior Department directed the BLM to study whether 30 of the withheld leases should be reinstated. More information can be found in the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Oil and Gas Resource Development section

Meanwhile, political leaders moved in early 2010 to protect the Flathead River Basin, which stretches from Canada into the United States and includes much of Glacier National Park. Longstanding proposals to develop oil and gas and other mineral development in Canada upstream of the park prompted widespread concerns about impacts on park resources. After the provincial government of British Columbia announced a new land use plan to prohibit such acitivities, Montana's Senators Baucus and Tester introduced S. 3075 on March 4, 2010, to withdraw federal lands in the basin adjacent to Glacier National Park from all new mineral leasing. In April 2010 ConocoPhillips announced it would honor the lawmakers' request to terminate 169,000 acres of existing oil and gas leases in the valley. 

Alton Coal Development LLC proposed to stripmine 440 acres of private lands about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City, near Bryce Canyon National Park, prompting objections from conservationists and the park superintendent. In testimony before a citizens' board of the Utah Oil, Gas & Mining in May 2010, opponents argued that the state set a low threshold for sediment that would run off the strip mine into mountain lakes, streams and the wild and scenic Virgin River. See "Environmental groups attack approval for strip mine near Bryce Canyon," Deseret News, 5/22/10. For a summary of the various parties' positions, see "Mining near Bryce Canyon: Who benefits?" NewWest, 9/2/10.

Controversies: Infrastructure Decline/Maintenance Backlog

The National Park System is currently facing a maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion for roads, bridges, trails, buildings, and other structures, such as sewer systems. A bill to eliminate the backlog and to establish yearly funding for the NPS that would be independent of the political process, The National Park Centennial Act, died in committee during the 2007-08 session of Congress. Subsequent efforts between 2008-10 to add $100 million annual increases to the NPS budget failed as well. And, in the 2011 budget compromise, the agency's budget was reduced by $132 million. See "Funding, staff shortages threaten national parks," Great Falls Tribune, 9/3/11.
Although other major federal land management agencies also have maintenance backlogs, the NPS backlog is larger than that of BLM, the USFWS, and the Forest Service combined. A Congressional Research Service paper on the subject attributes the backlog to years of under funding; currently, the NPS is funded as part of the annual appropriations process. Some commentators have pointed out that, as part of the appropriations process, Congress frequently approves funding for specific, member-requested projects that were not asked for by the NPS. Despite the maintenance backlog, for example, there is a $333,000 outhouse at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area complete with Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and a self composting toilet, and in 2001 Congress appropriated $3 million for restoration of a chalet in Glacier National Park used by about one percent of park visitors.

In November 2011, the National Parks Conservation Association issued a report that the National Park Service lost $140 million in federal funding in fiscal year 2011, and warned that the ongoing budget impasse could further imperil parks funding.


Collaboration in Action

Under federal laws such as the Organic Act of 1916, the Management Act of 1998, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, and the Wilderness Act of 1964, the NPS is legally required to consult with the public and state, local, and tribal governments in a number of situations, including in management planning, considering an area for addition to the Park System, and conducting wilderness assessments.  The following provides several examples of collaborations which satisfy these mandates and advance the purposes of the national parks. 
Additional information and specific stories on collaboration between the NPS and other entities can be found on the website of the NPS’s Conservation Study Institute, created to advance collaborative conservation efforts between the NPS and communities. The Institute’s publications page contains a number of case studies of successful collaboration efforts, as well as other resources. 

Collaboration in Action: Gateway Communities

The NPS enters into partnerships with gateway communities neighboring Park System land to arrange for mutually beneficial cooperative management practices. These collaborative efforts frequently involve volunteers, non-profits, local government, and businesses and focus on smart growth, visitor traffic, and managing park impacts.  Case studies related to gateway commumities and the National Parks are available on the NPS partnership website

Zion – Springdale Shuttle

A shuttle bus system that provides the main means of transportation in Zion National Park in southwestern Utah was established in 2000 as a result of a partnership with the park’s gateway community, Springdale, Utah. By the late 1990s annual park visitor numbers had reached about 2.4 million, causing traffic congestion in Springdale, population 457, and straining the Park’s limited parking areas. As a result, the NPS and the community established a free shuttle bus system; the shuttles are the only vehicles allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic drive through the Park’s major tourist attraction during the tourist season, lessening congestion in both the town and the Park’s parking lot. The shuttle system includes six stops in the town and eight in the Park, connecting the Park’s scenery with lodging in the town. More information can be found on the website of Zion National Park and on an NPS partnership page that contains the accounts of the park superintendent and town mayor who created the system.

Rocky Mountain Wilderness

A significant wilderness designation within Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado was created by congress in 2009 after support by a partnership of conservationists, NPS representatives, mountain bikers, and leaders from local towns. Much of the area, which encompasses 250,000 of the park’s 266,000 acres, has been managed as wilderness since the 1970s, when the NPS first found that it was eligible for wilderness designation. However, bills to classify the area as wilderness consistently failed to pass congress; recently, the classification lacked enough support in both the 109th and 110th congresses. In 2009, following expressions of support from the NPS, the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake (Rocky Mountain National Park’s gateway communities), conservationists, and others, Colorado’s delegation in the 111th congress re-introduced the wilderness legislation. The bill was combined with several others in to the 2009 Public Lands Omnibus Management Act and signed into law by President Barack Obama in March 2009. Following efforts by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, the final wilderness boundaries were drawn to leave a popular trail on the western side of the park open to mountain bikers, while at the same time allowing for wilderness preservation.

Great Sand Dunes and the Baca Ranch

The Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado’s San Luis Valley was significantly expanded between 2001 and 2004 following a water rights fight. The fight ended in 2001 with conservationists purchasing and transferring to the federal government nearly 100,000 acres of land, the largest such preservation effort in Colorado history. Prior to 2001, Great Sand Dunes was a national monument that bordered a large parcel of land known as the Baca Ranch. The ranch was owned by a series of business interests that fought several unsuccessful legal battles in an attempt to export water from San Luis Valley to cities in Colorado and New Mexico. After several years of lawsuits, a group of local agricultural, business, and environmental organizations successfully lobbied Colorado’s congressional delegation to introduce legislation that would authorize the federal purchase of the Baca Ranch and the quadrupling in size of Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Following passage of that legislation in 2000, The Nature Conservancy purchased the ranch in 2001; by 2004 the Baca Ranch had been completely transferred to the federal government. The full story is told in the Red Lodge Clearinghouse Stories section.

Collaboration in Action: Partnership Areas

The Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 (H.R. 146) created ten new National Heritage Areas costing about $100 million in Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and North Dakota.
The term “partnership area” is used by the NPS to refer to areas where other federal, state, local, tribal, and private entities own portions of the land. For example, national trails and rivers frequently cross non-NPS owned land. Additionally, National Heritage Areas are generally owned and operated at the state or local level with the NPS providing some funding and expertise. Examples include:

Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area

The Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area was established by Congress in 2000 and is managed by a non-profit corporation with a board of directors consisting primarily of Yuma, Arizona community members. The NPS provides technical assistance to the area, while the non-profit corporation handles planning and management, including maintaining wetlands and reclaiming surrounding area. In particular, the wetlands restoration process has involved local farmers and Indian tribes as well as conservation organizations, and has taken place on tribal land. The area is funded by state and private funds along with federal matching funds. More information can be found at the heritage area’s website.

Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area

The Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area was established by Congress in 2006, and is managed by a non-profit corporation whose board consists of New Mexico state officials, representatives of three counties, tribal and pueblo officials, representatives of three cities, and members of the public. The corporation is currently drafting a comprehensive management plan for the area and has held several public meetings. The area includes three New Mexico counties and is intended to preserve historical and cultural resources of tribes, pueblos, early settlers, and other groups; it is funded by state and local governments and private entities in conjunction with federal matching funds. More information can be found on the heritage area’s website.

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail

The historic trail was established by Congress in 2000 as a joint unit of the NPS and the BLM. The El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Trail Association works with those agencies to coordinated archeological and historical investigation, education, and preservation along the trail. The Association, whose members represent local governments, conservationists, and the public, also works with the various communities located along the trail to maintain involvement and understanding of the trail’s operation. More information can be found at the Trail Association’s website.


The National Park Service 
National Park Service 2006 Management Policies 
The National Park Conservation Association 
National Park Conservation Association publications and reports 
Climate Change & National Park Wildlife: A Survival Guide for a Warming World


The Antiquities Act of 1906 
16 U.S.C. §§ 431-33 (2008)
The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 
16 U.S.C. §§ 1-18(f)(3) (2008). Significant amendments include the General Authorities Act of 1970 and the Redwood Amendment of 1978, which modified the language in 16 U.S.C. § 1(a)(1) concerning the purpose of the Park System.
The Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act of 1935 
16 U.S.C. 461-67 (2008)
The National Trails System Act of 1968 
16 U.S.C. §§ 1241-51 (2008)
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 
16 U.S.C. § 1271-87 (2008)
The National Park Service Omnibus Management Act of 1998 
16 U.S.C. §§ 5901-6011 (2008). Notably this act also modified the language in 16 U.S.C. § 1(a)(5)  concerning studies for the addition of new areas to the Park System.

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