Introduction to Science and Natural Resource Management for the National Parks: Milestones, 1916–2016

In 1983, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Wallace Stegner declared that the national parks were “the best idea our nation ever had.” Almost 50 years earlier Franklin D. Roosevelt had said, “There is nothing so American as our national parks.” Over the last century, the National Park Service recorded 13.6 billion recreation visits throughout the National Park System. The people who visited the parks were undoubtedly enthralled by their natural beauty and majestic, free-roaming wildlife. Yet few of them likely gave much thought to the enormity and complexity of the natural ecosystems or histories from which our nation’s parks draw their identities.

When the 1916 Organic Act defined the goals of the National Park Service, it also set the stage for more than 100 years of negotiation regarding human use versus preservation of the parks’ natural and cultural environments. Over many decades, NPS park management saw use as guiding its most important policies. Science and scientists had struggled to gain a voice and resources as leadership changed and the individuals running the parks settled into customs of management that did not fully value the input of science. However, this began to change as managers and scientists earnestly faced the “unimpaired” portion of the NPS mandate. Over time, the natural sciences focused more on systems and less on individual species, and the nature of park science evolved. Science and scientists now occupy a central place in both the operations and identity of the National Park Service.

Now, as the National Park Service embarks on its second century, it is looking at science, and cultural and natural resource management, from the long view, a role that Park Science has helped facilitate since its inception in 1980. This pullout section of the journal provides a visual representation of the successes, failures, and ongoing challenges related to the use of science to steward the natural world that is expressed so unforgettably in our National Park System.

We have chosen to tell this story by fitting milestones into four themes, represented as colored ribbons traversing the next several pages. They are governance and policy, science and scientists, debates, and innovations. While we acknowledge the importance of events in roughly the first half of NPS history, we feel that emphasizing events in the last 35 years highlights both the role of past decisions and the impact of recent ones on the present and future of science in the parks. This approach also calls attention to the relatively recent explosion in diverse science initiatives along with the growth in scientific expertise and technical support capabilities across the park system. Finally, it emphasizes how NPS science has stepped out to take the lead in such areas as environmental inventory and monitoring, climate change, and interconnections between nature and our heritage as a nation.

The very nature of a timeline prohibits detail, so we have provided the briefest synopses of key events, people, and policies. We hope this timeline provides you with a jumping-off place for further exploration of the many roles of science and resource management in our national parks.

Rebecca Hunt
Associate Professor, Clinical Teaching Track
Department of History
University of Colorado–Denver


To create this timeline we consulted various historical texts, most especially Richard Sellars’s landmark Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History, first published in 1997. We also found material in past issues of Park Science and Natural Resource Year in Review to be particularly valuable for the most recent developments. Finally, we received input from several NPS programs and managers.


The timeline is the product of a cooperative agreement between the National Park Service and the University of Colorado–Denver, Center of Preservation Research (UCD CoPR).

UCD CoPR: Brandon Cahill, Rebecca Hunt, Max LaRue, Mike Nulty, Kimberly Verhoeven, and Kat Vlahos;
NPS: Jeff Selleck and Cheri Yost

Last updated: March 23, 2021