On-line Book
cover to America's National Park Service: The Critical Documents
Cover Page


Table of Contents


The Early Years,

Defining The System,

The New Deal Years,

The Poverty Years,

Questions of
Resource Management

The Ecological Revolution,

Transformation and

A System Threatened,

Summaries of
Lengthy Documents

About the Editor

America's National Park System:
The Critical Documents
Chapter 8:
A System Threatened, 1981 - 1992
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A System Threatened

The period from 1963 to 1980 had seen major changes affecting the national park system. Indeed, one might have expected that vast expansion of the network of parks, monuments, etc., and increasingly biocentric management would continue indefinitely. However, 1981 saw the arrival of economic recession and altered priorities emanating from Washington. Over the next twelve years the national park system would suffer expanded visitation and heightened external threats coupled with serious underfunding and erosion of employee morale. Many aspects of NPS management would be challenged, and politicization of the directorship and erosion of its power promoted. The signal for change came early as a new Interior secretary, James Watt, tendered the traditional secretary's letter on national park system management. He spelled out administration policies that would curtail the system's growth and return to provision of visitor services and pleasures as a primary management goal.

Heightened public interest in touring the parks and in developing commercial and residential complexes on their borders exacerbated the problems noted in 1980. The General Accounting Office issued a report in 1987 that spelled out what park personnel knew — that the threats were not being addressed and that many problems had in fact worsened. It found instead that the parks were not being run consistent with the laws and executive orders established to protect them.

A year later saw the worst fire in national park system history. Approximately half of Yellowstone's acres burned, although the percentage of forest destroyed was a much lower figure. Daily from July through September the public watched in fascination and alarm as the nation's oldest park burned. In the end loud questions from politicians and visitors called into question two decades of fire management. An interagency report released in 1989, however, found the policy basically sound. Ecosystem management survived its toughest test.

In 1990, decades of archaeological business as usual suddenly ended with passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Hitherto, excavation of Indian graves and removal of human and ceremonial remains were forbidden. This act imposed further difficulties for museums, including those operated by the National Park Service, for it stipulated that Indian remains be returned to the direct or at least cultural descendants for reburial.

Finally 1992 saw the release of two more reports on the status of the national park system. One, Science and the National Parks, echoed the earlier Robbins report (1963) in finding the National Park Service wanting in its pursuit and use of scientific information. It called for far more attention to science as a basis for policy and management. The other report was the end result of a highly publicized and expensive conference on the status and needs of the national parks for the twenty-first century. Called the Vail report for its meeting site, the document reiterated the concerns of the State of the Parks Report (1980) and the GAO report (1987). It reaffirmed most of their recommendations and the basic policies developed from the early 1960s through 1980. Although it is unlikely that either report will lead to significant policy changes, they indicate the persistence of longtime problems and of the basic formulas for their solution. It remains to be seen whether the recommendations of these two committees and those that preceded them will finally be adopted in full.


Secretary Watt's Letter on National Park Management, 1981

General Accounting Office Report on Threats to Parks, 1987

Interagency Final Report on Fire Management, 1989

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 1990

The Vail Agenda, 1992

Science and the National Parks, 1992


Last Modified: October 25, 2000 10:00:00 am PST

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