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
National Park Service Arrowhead


Report by the United States
General Accounting Office, 1987



In 1980 the National Park Service reported more than 4,000 threats to the natural and cultural resources of the national park system, from both within and outside park borders. The following year, in response to a congressional request, the Park Service developed a strategy to prevent and mitigate the problems identified in its report. The Chairman, Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation, House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, asked GAO to determine, among other things, what progress the Park Service has made in identifying, monitoring, and mitigating threats and how its resource management needs are reflected in the parks' resource management plans and Park Service budgets.


In its 1980 State of the Parks report, the Park Service listed about 4,300 threats to the aesthetic qualities, cultural resources, air and water quality, plants, and wildlife of the nation's parks. According to the report, more than half the threats came from sources outside park boundaries and only about 25 percent were adequately documented. The Park Service claimed that it did not have enough staff and funds to adequately identify, monitor, and correct these problems or to give additional attention to external threats.

Following its report, the Park Service developed a servicewide strategy to improve its resource management capabilities. The strategy, to which the Park Service says it is still committed, called for each park to have a resource management plan for both its natural and cultural resources by the end of 1981. These plans were to (1) include an inventory of park resources and a detailed program for monitoring and managing the resources, (2) specify necessary staff and funding, and (3) assign priorities to projects so that resources provided could be allocated toward the most serious problems. The plans also were to be updated annually and used in formulating annual Park Service budgets.

To support the development and use of these plans, the Park Service announced a series of 11 initiatives to improve resource management information and staff capabilities.


The Park Service's strategy for better managing park resources has yet to be fully implemented. Some parks do not have an approved resource management plan even though they were required to be completed by the end of 1981, others have not updated their plans, and the plans that have been prepared are not being used in formulating the Park Service's annual budgets. Further, many of the 11 initiatives intended to support the development and use of the plans were not followed through.

The Park Service has not kept track of its progress in documenting and mitigating the threats it identified in 1980. The 12 parks GAO visited* have corrected some of the resource problems, but most problems remain and many of those are still not well-understood or documented. Although the parks have proposed projects to address these problems, most were not funded.


Resource Management Plans and Initiatives

Although all units of the national park system were required to prepare resource management plans by the end of 1981 and update them annually, only half met the original deadlines. As of August 1986, 35 units were still without approved cultural plans and 31 without approved natural plans. GAO visited 12 parks in 3 different regions and found that 2 parks had no approved plans and 4 had not updated their plans since they were first approved in 1982 and 1983, respectively. Further, the Park Service had just started developing a process that could be used to analyze park-unit resource management plan data for making regional and servicewide budget and funds allocation decisions.

The Park Service's 11 initiatives were aimed at improving resource information, training staff in resource management, and increasing scientific research. The training initiatives were undertaken and are continuing. Of the remaining initiatives, one was never undertaken and the others were initiated but not carried through. Standards and guidelines for resource inventories and monitoring procedures, for example, were drafted but were not used. Also, plans to expand research programs were dropped for higher priority projects. On the other hand, although not part of its original set of initiatives, the Park Service has put into effect a national air quality monitoring program and established a national inventory of threats to parks from mining and mineral activities.

Documenting and Mitigating Threats

Neither the Park Service nor the individual park units kept track of their progress in addressing the threats identified in the State of the Parks report. The Park Service's budget for resource management increased considerably between 1980 and 1984, from $44 million to $93 million. Within the 12 national parks GAO visited, additional funds were used to resolve some significant problems, such as the removal of plants and animals harmful to park resources and the repair of deteriorating historic structures. Nevertheless, officials of these 12 parks judged that 255, or 80 percent, of the total 318 threats reported in 1980, were still unresolved as of December 1985. Of these, 111, or about 43 percent of those remaining, were still undocimented—that is, the parks did not know the extent to which these perceived threats were problems, or the dimensions of those that were known problems.

Although the parks have proposed projects to address known and potential resource problems, many projects have not been funded. in the 10 parks GAO visited that had approved resource management plans, nearly 100 projects, intended to deal with deteriorating resources and threats to health and safety and provide more information about potential threats, were proposed to be funded in fiscal ear 1986. However, none were funded. For example, at Death Valley National Monument funds were not approved to install protective nets over abandoned mine shafts. At Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, no funds were provided to prevent further deterioration the condition of rare, endangered, or threatened plant species in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Two of the 10 parks received about 25 percent of the funds and staff they requested in 1986, one received bout 75 percent of its request, and another had only one of 7 projects funded.


To provide the information needed for the Park Service to develop a comprehensive, systemwide approach to protect and manage ark resources and provide the basis to make more informed funding decisions, GAO recommends that the Secretary of the Interior direct the Director, National Park Service, to

  • enforce the agency's requirement that resource management plans be prepared and updated in accordance with established Park Service guidance and criteria at each park and
  • improve procedures on the use of the information provided in the resource management plans to (1) identify and prioritize cultural and natural resource management needs on a regional and servicewide basis and (2) prepare annual budget requests.
    To ensure that resource management plans are based on adequate formation, GAO is also making recommendations relating to the gathering and monitoring of data on the parks' natural and cultural resources. [These are to]
  • develop standards for determining the minimum baseline information needed to properly plan for the management and protection of park resources,
  • assess the adequacy of each park's information base in relation to the standards so developed,
  • take action to improve park information bases that are found not up to the standards, and
  • develop and implement long-term programs to monitor resource condition changes over time.


In its comments on a draft of our report, the Department of the Interior believes that the report fairly addresses the questions the Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation raised about the Park Service actions since the 1980 State of the Parks report, and it agreed with the thrust of the report's recommendations. The Department did state, however, that it believes the report neglected to emphasize in its recommendations that in taking actions to improve park information bases, the Park Service must not only make a onetime effort to collect baseline information, but must also establish long-term programs to monitor appropriate parameters for changes over time. GAO agrees with Interior and has added a recommendation citing the need for long-term resource monitoring programs.

* Cape Hatteras, Custer Battlefield (now Little Bighorn), Death Valley, Florissant, Glacier, Grant-Kohrs, Great Smoky Mountains, Hawaii Volcanoes, John Muir, Redwood, Stones River and Wright Brothers.
GAO/RCED-87-36, GPO, 1987, 2-5, 37.

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