Foundation Document



Every unit of the national park system is required to have a formal statement of its core mission that will provide basic guidance for all planning and management decisions—a foundation for planning and management. Increasing emphasis on government accountability and restrained federal spending demand that all stakeholders are aware of the purpose, significance, interpretive themes, fundamental resources and values, and special mandates and administrative commitments of a park unit, as well as the legal and policy requirements for administration and resource protection that factor into management decisions.

The process of developing a foundation document provides the opportunity to gather together and integrate all varieties and hierarchies of information about a park unit. Next, this information is refined and focused to determine what are the most important attributes of the park unit. The process of preparing a foundation document aids park managers, staff, and stakeholders in identifying information that is necessary for future planning efforts. This foundation document was developed as a collaborative effort. A workshop to facilitate this process was held June 19–21, 2012, in Moab, Utah. A complete list of attendees and preparers is included in part 3 of this document.

A foundation document serves as the underlying guidance for planning decisions for a national park unit. It describes the core mission of the park unit by identifying the purpose, significance, fundamental and important resources and values, interpretive themes, assessment of planning and data needs, special mandates and administrative commitments, and the unit’s setting in the regional context.

The foundation document can be useful in all aspects of park management to ensure that primary management objectives are accomplished before addressing other factors that are also important, but not directly essential to achieving the park purpose and maintaining its significance. Thus, the development of a foundation document for Arches National Park is necessary to effectively manage the park over the long term and protect park resources and values that are integral to the purpose and identity of the park unit and to address key issues affecting management.

The park atlas is also a part of the foundation project. It is a geographic information system (GIS) product that can be published as a hard copy paper atlas and as electronic geospatial data in a Web-mapping environment. The purpose of the park atlas is to support park operations and to facilitate planning decisions as a GIS-based planning support tool. The atlas covers various geographic elements that are important for park management such as natural and cultural resources, visitor use patterns, and facilities. The park atlas establishes the available baseline GIS information for a park that can be used to support future planning activities. The park atlas is available at

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Part 1: Core Components

Foundation documents include the following core elements:

The park purpose is the specific reason(s) for establishing a particular park. A park purpose statement is grounded in a thorough analysis of the legislation (or executive order) and legislative history of the park, and may include information from studies generated prior to the park’s establishment. The purpose statement goes beyond a restatement of the law to clarify assumptions about what the law means in terms specific to the park.

The significance statements express why the resources and values of the park are important enough to justify national park designation. Statements of park significance describe why an area is important within a global, national, regional, and systemwide context. Significance statements are directly linked to the purpose of the park and are verified by data or consensus that reflect the most current scientific or scholarly inquiry and cultural perceptions because the resources and values may have changed since the park was established.

Interpretive themes connect park resources to relevant ideas, meanings, concepts, contexts, beliefs, and values. They support the desired interpretive objective of increasing visitor understanding and appreciation of the significance of park resources. In other words, interpretive themes are the most important messages to be conveyed to the public about the park. Interpretive themes are based on park purpose and significance.

Fundamental resources and values are features, systems, organisms, processes, visitor experiences, stories, scenes, sounds, smells, or other attributes of the park that merit primary consideration during planning and management because they are essential to achieving park purpose and maintaining park significance.

Other important resources and values are resources and values that are determined to be important and integral to park planning and management, although they are not related to park purpose and significance.

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Brief Description of the Park

Arches National Park is in the heart of canyon country in southeastern Utah and is considered one of America’s scenic wonders. The park preserves 76,679 acres of high desert on the Colorado Plateau, punctuated by rocky ridges, canyons, fins, towers, monoliths, pinnacles, and more than 2,000 arches. Delicate Arch has become an icon; it is the adopted symbol for the Utah license plate and was one of the images for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. The nearby town of Moab is a major tourist destination that serves as a hub for a wide range of recreational activities in the surrounding region. The prominent La Sal Mountains to the southeast rise to more than 12,600 feet above sea level and provide a scenic background for the park. Elevations in the park range from 4,085 to 5,653 feet above sea level.

The park’s distinctive landscapes are products of multiple geologic processes including salt tectonics, sedimentation, folding and faulting, erosion, and salt dissolution operating over hundreds of millions of years. Diverse geologic formations, landforms, and soils shape patterns in the distribution and abundance of plants and animals through effects on the availability of scarce water resources in this arid environment where annual precipitation averages less than 9 inches.

Plants and animals of the park are able to deal with extreme variations in temperature and moisture, as well as intense sunlight. Vegetation is sparse overall and interspaces among plants often are dominated by biological crust communities composed of cyanobacteria, mosses, and lichens. These soil-surface communities are important for stabilizing soils, preventing erosion, and retaining water and nutrients needed by other plants and animals. Visitors also may notice pinyon pine, juniper, and many species of grasses, cacti, and shrubs. Moisture-dependent plants like cottonwoods, willows, and ferns are found along the rare perennial streams, in washes, or in alcoves with dripping springs. Wildflowers appear after spring rains. Notable wildlife includes mule deer, coyotes, raptors such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons, desert bighorn sheep, and the seldom seen bobcat and mountain lion. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, and black widow spiders are present but encountered less frequently than squirrels, packrats, chipmunks, and rabbits. Common birds include ravens, pinyon jays, and red-tailed hawks.

Cultural resources in the park span at least 12,000 years of human occupation and activity. There are Paleoindian, Archaic, Fremont-era, ancestral Pueblo, and Ute archeological sites in the park, including lithic scatters, middens, pictographs, and petroglyphs. Historic resources include those left by explorers, miners, ranchers, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. There are six sites in Arches National Park that have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail.

Many of the park’s dramatic features are visible from the main road, which enters at the southern extremity and runs to Devils Garden in the northern part of the park, with two side roads along the way. A visitor center is just inside the entrance. More than a dozen hiking trails provide access to arches and other features and to the backcountry. The park offers a variety of recreational experiences including sightseeing, viewpoints/photo stops, hiking, interpretation, picnicking, special tours to the Fiery Furnace, backcountry and developed camping, rock climbing, canyoneering, bicycling (on established park roads), and nature study. Arches National Park is a great family park, with several trails and trail loops that offer moderate and easy day-hiking experiences.

Developed areas at Arches National Park can become extremely crowded during the busy seasons. Since 2010 the park has received more than 1 million visitors each year. The park’s season for visitation is from March through September. Recreation visits peak in the months of May, June, and September and daily counts at the park’s visitor center have recorded up to 3,000–4,000 visitors.

Arches National Park was first established as a national monument in 1929, and later became a national park in 1971. The park is within the “Grand Circle,” a broad geographic region in the southwestern United States that encompasses more than 60 recreation sites in 5 states. The Grand Circle includes some of the Southwest’s most unique landscapes, attractions, scenic byways, and national park lands.

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Park Purpose

Purpose statements identify the specific reason for the establishment of a particular park. Purpose statements are crafted through a careful analysis of the enabling legislation and legislative history that influenced the development of Arches National Park. The park was first designated as Arches National Monument when the initial enabling legislation was passed and signed into law on April 12, 1929 (see appendix A for enabling legislation and subsequent amendments). The purpose statement reinforces the foundation for future park management administration and use decisions. The following is the purpose statement for Arches National Park:

The purpose of Arches National Park is to protect extraordinary examples of geologic features including arches, natural bridges, windows, spires, balanced rocks, as well as other features of geologic, historic, and scientific interest, and to provide opportunities to experience these resources and their associated values in their majestic natural settings.

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Park Significance

Significance statements express why Arches National Park resources and values are important enough to merit national park unit designation. Statements of significance describe why an area is important within a global, national, regional, and systemwide context. These statements are linked to the purpose of the park unit, and are supported by data, research, and consensus. Significance statements describe the distinctive nature of the park and inform management decisions, focusing efforts on preserving and protecting the most important resources and values of the park unit.

The following significance statements have been identified for Arches National Park (please note that these statements are in no particular order):

  • Arches National Park contains the largest concentration of natural arches on earth.
  • The geographic location of Arches National Park provides visitors with the opportunity to enjoy iconic Colorado Plateau landscapes in a majestic natural setting, with striking geologic features in the foreground and the towering La Sal Mountains in the distance creating expansive views of contrasting colors and textures.
  • Arches National Park protects representative examples of Colorado Plateau ecosystems, providing opportunities for scientific studies of natural and human systems in diverse landscape settings over long periods of time.
  • Arches National Park protects a notable array of cultural sites and features that reflect the many different ways people have occupied and used Colorado Plateau landscapes over the last 12,000 years.

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Interpretive Themes

Interpretive themes are often described as the key stories or concepts that visitors should understand after visiting a park—they define the most important ideas or concepts communicated to visitors about a park unit. Themes are derived from— and should reflect—park purpose, significance, resources, and values. The set of interpretive themes is complete when it provides the structure necessary for park staff to develop opportunities for visitors to explore and relate to all of park significances and fundamental resources and values.

Interpretive themes are an organizational tool that reveal and clarify meaning, concepts, contexts, and values represented by park resources. Sound themes are accurate and reflect current scholarship and science. They encourage exploration of the context in which events or natural processes occurred and the effects of those events and processes. They go beyond a mere description of the event or process to foster multiple opportunities to experience and consider the park and its resources. Themes help to explain why a park story is relevant to people who are unconnected to an event, time, or place.

While themes are important as an organizational tool to guide management decisions, they are not intended for public use. The themes offer park staff guidance on focusing on relevant visitor experiences, and what matters to the public is how these themes are represented through park services, media, programming, and facilities.

The following interpretive themes have been identified under individual topics for Arches National Park:

  • Geology. Geologic features found in Arches National Park are a result of powerful and dynamic geologic forces operating over great lengths of time.
  • Desert Ecology. The geology, climate, and life forms of Arches National Park result in a rich, interconnected desert ecosystem.
  • Natural Environments. The expansive views, dark night skies, and natural sounds of Arches National Park provide opportunities for visitors to experience nature and solitude.
  • Majestic Scenery. The beautiful landscapes and vistas enjoyed from within Arches National Park are dependent on the health and vitality of surrounding lands, water, and air.
  • Cultural Landscapes. Past human activities have influenced and shaped what we see and experience in Arches National Park today.

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Fundamental Resources and Values

Fundamental resources and values are those features, systems, processes, experiences, stories, scenes, sounds, smells, or other attributes determined to warrant primary consideration during planning and management because they are critical to achieving the park’s purpose and maintaining its significance.

The preeminent responsibility of park managers is to ensure the conservation and public enjoyment of those qualities that are critical (fundamental) to achieving the park’s purpose and maintaining its significance. These qualities are called the park’s fundamental resources and values (FRVs). Fundamental resources and values are closely related to legislative purpose, and are more specific than significance statements. Fundamental resources and values help focus planning and management on what is truly important about the park. If they are allowed to deteriorate, the park purpose and/or significance could be jeopardized.

This distinction is made to ensure fundamental resources and values receive specific consideration in park planning processes because of their relationship to the park’s purpose and significance.

The following fundamental resources and values have been identified for Arches National Park:

  • Geologic Resources. This includes arches, fins, windows, balanced rocks, spires, natural bridges, and other geologic features such as faults and anticlines. Geologic processes formed and continue to change the landscape.
  • Clean Air and Scenic Vistas. Clean air and undeveloped natural viewsheds allow for incredible vistas of the nearby La Sal Mountains and other scenic landscapes in and around the park. Clean air enhances the color and contrast of landscape features, allows visitors to see great distances, and safeguards ecosystem, visitor, and staff health.
  • Colorado Plateau Ecosystems. Clean water, native biotic communities, and the natural hydrologic, geomorphic, and biotic processes necessary for sustaining them are fundamental to the integrity of natural ecosystems protected in Arches National Park.
  • Cultural Features. Arches National Park includes rare Barrier Canyon style rock art panels, lithic quarries, Civilian Conservation Corps–era structures, one of only 12 known Denis Julien inscriptions, and national register-listed Wolfe Ranch Historical District.
  • Collaborative Conservation, Science, and Scholarship. Collaboration with external partners and engagement in scientific and scholarly activities are values and processes that are fundamental for achieving the park’s purpose and maintaining its significance in the context of shared landscape values, rapidly changing social and environmental conditions, and uncertainty in outcomes of management decision making.

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Other Important Resources and Values

Arches National Park contains other resources and values that may not be fundamental to the purpose and significance of the park, but are important to consider in management and planning decisions. These are referred to as other important resources and values.

The following are other important resources and values for Arches National Park:

  • Natural Soundscapes. Parts of Arches National Park are free from human-caused sounds and natural sounds of the desert predominate in these areas.
  • Paleontological Resources. Hundreds of paleontological features have been found in and around the park including fossil evidence of prehistoric vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants.
  • Opportunities for Primitive and Remote Experiences. The backcountry areas of Arches National Park provide opportunities to experience quiet and solitude in a remote natural setting as experienced at Lost Spring Canyon, Eagle Park, and Salt Wash.
  • Dark Night Skies. The dark night skies in Arches National Park are generally quite dark, except for the glow coming from the cities of Moab and Grand Junction.
  • Rare and Iconic Wildlife Species. Desert bighorn sheep, peregrine falcons, and other raptors are viewed and enjoyed by visitors to Arches National Park.
  • Museum Collections The park’s museum collections contain three-dimensional objects and natural history specimens and artifacts that are representative of the resources within the park’s boundaries. Archives also are a component of museum collections and document park and resource management history.

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Part 2: Dynamic Components

Part 2 consists of two components:

  • special mandates and administrative commitments
  • assessment of planning and data needs

These components may change after this foundation document is published and may need to be updated periodically.


Special Mandates and Administrative Commitments

Many of the management decisions for a park unit are directed or influenced by special mandates and administrative commitments with other federal agencies, state and local governments, utility companies, partnering organizations, and other entities. Special mandates are requirements specific to a park, most often legislative or judicial, that must be fulfilled along with the park purpose. Mandates can be expressed in enabling legislation or in separate legislation following the establishment of the park. They may expand on park purpose or introduce elements unrelated to the purpose of the park. Administrative commitments are, in general, agreements that have been reached through formal, documented processes, often through memoranda of agreement. In this category are such agreements as easements, rights-of-way, arrangements for emergency service response, etc. Special mandates and administrative commitments, in many cases, support a network of partnerships that help fulfill the objectives of the park and facilitate working relationships with other organizations. They are an essential component of managing and planning for Arches National Park.

  • The Clean Air Act, as amended, requires all park units to meet federal, state, and local pollution standards. Additionally, Arches National Park is a mandatory Class I area under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration provisions of the act. This gives the National Park Service an “affirmative responsibility” to protect the air quality and air quality related values (AQRVs) within the park from the adverse effects of air pollution. Air quality related values s are resources that are sensitive to air pollution, such as visibility, plants, animals, soils, water and certain cultural resources. State and federal permitting authorities must consult with the National Park Service regarding new sources of air pollution, and impacts to park air quality related values must be considered in the permitting process. Further, the act requires NPS involvement in national regulatory efforts aimed eliminating humancaused visibility impairment in all Class I areas.
  • Memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. This agreement ensures that the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service continue to enhance efficiencies in each other’s management activities, to coordinate information and outreach efforts, and to foster communications on activities that have the potential to affect the other agency’s management responsibilities.
  • Memorandum of understanding among the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding air quality analyses and mitigations for federal oil and gas decisions analyzed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. This memorandum of understanding provides that air quality will be considered, analyzed, and mitigated through an interagency collaborative process. The MOU seeks to safeguard air quality and resources sensitive to air pollution—termed air quality related values—while recognizing the various missions and mandates of the signatory agencies.
  • General agreement among Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Arches and Canyonlands national parks. This agreement supports shared employee safety, interagency operational communications, emergency medical service, law enforcement, and the public safety effort by making 24-hour dispatch available for after-hours and emergency services from Glen Canyon Interagency Communications Center.
  • Cooperative agreement among the National Park Service, Southeast Utah Group, and Grand County, Utah. This agreement is to provide cooperative management activities and emergency operations in Grand County, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park.
  • Arches National Park has the authority to administer 133.03 acres of a Grand County patent 43-63-0036, which is located inside park boundaries. As long as the use in the parcel complies with stipulations of the original permit and is “for recreation site purposes only” such as boat launching and docking, parking, and picnicking, the National Park Service does not have any present authority to restrict or specify the manner in which the county or its concessioners manage those uses granted in the patent. Although the park has the authority to administer the parcel, the park does not have the authority to amend the patent.

For more information about the existing commitments for the park, please see the inventory of concessions and permits in appendix C.

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Assessment of Planning and Data Needs

Once park purpose and significance statements and fundamental resources and values have been identified, it is important to consider what additional information and planning tasks may be necessary to aid the National Park Service in its mission. The assessment of planning and data needs identifies any inherent conditions or threats contained in the gathered information and determines whether any additional planning steps, data needs, and management efforts may be necessary to maintain or protect the existing fundamental resources and values and other important resources and values.

There are three parts that make up the planning and data needs assessment:

  1. analysis of fundamental and other important resources and values
  2. identification of key or major parkwide issues that need to be addressed by future planning
  3. prioritization of data and planning needs

The analysis of fundamental resources and values and identification of major issues leads up to and supports the identification and prioritization of needed plans and studies.


Analysis of Fundamental Resources and Values

The analysis of fundamental resources and values articulates the importance of each fundamental resource and value; current condition, potential threats, and the related issues that require consideration in planning and management. Included in the analysis is the identification of relevant laws and NPS policies specific to the preservation and management of the resources at the park. This section of the foundation document will require periodic reviews and updates as monitoring and research improves our understanding of each fundamental resource and value.


The Foundation Document contains additional analysis and appendices. To request more of this information, email us.

Last updated: April 8, 2022

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