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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Report and Recommendations to the Director of the National Park Service: 1992


The National Park Service has great strengths—and it has major problems. Without question, its greatest strength is its employees. For the vast majority of its employees, to work for the Park Service is to engage in an ever-renewing project of preserving and protecting some of the nation's and the world's most meaningful and enriching—and, often, most fragile and threatened—natural and cultural resources. Throughout the organization, the individuals who work for the Park Service are precisely those who are drawn to this challenge and who hold forcefully to personal stakes in the units and programs for which they are responsible. They are drawn despite a pay scale that is commonly one or two steps below that of comparably responsible and experienced employees in other sister federal agencies, and despite the common frustrations associated with bureaucracies and politics.

When individuals with this much dedication encounter roadblocks to performance, the result is a weakening of morale and effectiveness. Perceptions exist among many employees and observers—and not without bases in reality—that good job performance is impeded by lowered educational requirements and eroding professionalism; that initiative is thwarted by inadequately trained managers and politicized decision making; that the Park Service lacks the information and resource management/research capability it needs to be able to pursue and defend its mission and resources in Washington, D.C. and in the communities that surround the park units; that the mission and the budget of the Service is being diluted by increasing and tangential responsibilities; that there is a mismatch between the demand that the park units be protected and the tools available when the threats to park resources and values are increasingly coming from outside unit boundaries; and that communication within the Service repeatedly breaks down between field personnel and regional and headquarters management. The result of these perceptions is that the National Park Service faces significant morale and performance problems. These threaten the agency's capacity to manage and protect park resources in the short run, and can impede the agency's future ability to attract and retain employees with the education, skills and dedication of the current workforce. Many of the recommendations of the Working Groups aim accurately at overturning the realities that underlie these perceptions.

Beyond the energy and dedication of its employees, the second great strength of the Park Service is the quality of the heritage and recreational resources under its management. These resources are the foundation of the broad base of public support for the Service, and they are the source of the natural inclination to look to the Park Service to manage new resources that might warrant protection. Notwithstanding their quality, the resources of the Park System now encompass a markedly diffuse range of public values. Citizen support for and interest in individual units varies greatly, as do the contributions each unit makes to the national heritage. Requisite personnel skills, organizational structures, and management demands also vary greatly.

The 359 units of the park system are arrayed in more than 20 separate classifications which aptly describe the system's dispersion, including: national battlefield, national battlefield site, national battlefield park, national historical park, national historic site, national lakeshore, national monument, national memorial, national military park, national park, national preserve, national river, wild and scenic riverway, national recreation area, national seashore, national scenic trail, international historic site, national heritage corridor and national parkway. In addition, the National Park Service is responsible for numerous and valuable external programs of support and assistance which have impact beyond the boundaries of the National Park System and even beyond the United States.

Some specific park units or programmatic responsibilities might, arguably, be better placed with other private, state, local, tribal, or federal agencies. Nevertheless, the broad range of resources and functions now managed by the National Park Service represents a permanent reality. Effective management of such a diffuse system requires the abandonment of any hope for a single, simple management philosophy. This is particularly difficult for an agency with its origins—and its identification in the public's mind—in the management and protection of the nation's most spectacular natural areas, the "crown jewels".

The Symposium process elicited numerous proposals that do not and should not apply to all units of the system: "The parks should be managed as environmental classrooms"; "The parks should be managed for recreation"; "The parks should be managed to teach American history." The challenge for the Park Service is to enunciate objectives which match the breadth of its responsibilities and alleviate intra-agency conflicts which result from the desire for a single, narrowly-focussed management strategy. The National Park Service manages a portfolio of assets; it must learn and implement the strategies of a portfolio manager. This means recognizing that all of the units and programs of the agency contribute to public value, but that the ways that these contributions are made and the forms that they take are varied.

The units and programs of the National Park System, taken together, have an important story to tell—a story that is, at once, interesting, instructive, and inspiring. The National Park System has the potential to bring together the landscapes, places, people and events that contribute in unique ways to the shared national experience and values of an otherwise highly diverse people. Unfortunately, there is widespread concern that the story is going untold; that, without resources, training, research, appropriate facilities and leadership, the Park Service is in danger of becoming merely a provider of "drive through" tourism or, perhaps, merely a traffic cop stationed at scenic, interesting or old places.

There are multiple sources for this concern. Managing and protecting the System's natural, cultural and recreational sites and programs are tasks for professionals—rangers, interpreters, scientists, planners, managers. The same can be said of the tasks of understanding and communicating history, or biology, or cultural significance, or archeology, or geology. Meeting these responsibilities requires education, research and experience in specialized and technical fields. But professionals are expensive, and low grade structures have impaired the ability of the Park Service to attract and retain qualified personnel. They have also gradually forced the weakening of many educational standards for employment. Training budgets, meanwhile, have tended to be focussed on mandated law enforcement and administrative compliance responsibilities. The problems of maintaining a professional workforce are only exacerbated by perceptions that management itself faces the need to enhance its professional competency, or is subject to political interference that dilutes any bolstering sense of mission.

Additionally, as the National Park System has expanded, units and programs have been added that arguably have lacked sufficient national significance to warrant National Park Service designation. Yet, such additions to the system have had sufficient constituent appeal and/ or economic development benefits in selected regions to secure their inclusion in the Park Service portfolio.

At the same time as new responsibilities have been added (and have attracted at least initial funding), the core operational budget of the Park Service has remained flat in real terms since 1983. Meanwhile, recreational visits to park units have risen sharply (25%) over the same period, reaching almost 260 million in 1990. Clearly, the capability of the Park Service to pursue its most central purposes of resource protection and public enjoyment is being stretched thinner and thinner. These disturbing problems are not the sole responsibility of Congress. The Park Service, partly through its own inaction and partly due to constraints emanating from the Executive Branch during the 1970s and 1980s, has lost the credibility and capability it must possess in order to play a proactive role in charting its own course, in defining and defending its core mission.

The National Park System should be a source of national pride, community, and consensus. It should represent the land, the cultures and the experiences that have defined and sustained the people of the nation in the past, and upon which we must continue to depend in the future. But, today, the ability of the National Park Service to achieve the most fundamental aspects of its mission has been compromised. There is a wide and discouraging gap between the Service's potential and its current state, and the Service has arrived at a crossroads in its history.

The basic facts and dimensions of the issues, problems, opportunities and solutions have been articulated and defined throughout the 75th Anniversary Symposium process. An opportunity for change has been created—nothing more and nothing less. Choices must now be made and action must now be taken by those who are responsible for the future of the National Park System—the Director and employees of the National Park Service, the Administration, Congress, and the concerned and committed public. If we fail to seize this opportunity for change, our common heritage will surely suffer.


Reform and rejuvenation of the National Park Service must begin with leadership that is capable of enunciating and implementing clear and compelling goals for parks policy and Park Service management. But what goals? Both within the Park Service and outside, there exists considerable disagreement over both objectives and means of implementation: Should we promote ecological protection? Recreation? International outreach? Involvement in local out-of-park land use policy? Ease of visitor access? More in-park facilities? No in-park facilities? Aggressive marketing of historic and cultural sites? Technical assistance to private and public partners who might need our resources?

These are the kinds of questions on which reasonable people can easily disagree, particularly in a society as economically, demographically, ethnically, and culturally diverse as ours. The Steering Committee has approached the task of resolving these challenging questions by first addressing the overriding purposes of the National Park Service.

Why would a nation want a system of national parks? If we can answer this question, it will help define the purpose of the National Park Service as it looks beyond its 75th anniversary into the next century. Clearly, the units that make up the National Park System of the United States are beautiful, or interesting, or fun, or restful, or invigorating, or otherwise enjoyable to those who visit them — but such wants can be, and are, satisfied through numerous other public and private sources. What rightfully distinguishes the National Park Service from other providers of aesthetic, cultural, recreational, environmental, and historical experiences and makes it the appropriate focus of a unique status and management philosophy?

The answer lies in the link between the units of the National Park System and those traits of environment, wilderness, landscape, history, and culture that bind Americans together as a distinct people. The units of the National Park System should constitute the sights, the scenery, the environments, the people, the places, the events, the conflicts that have contributed elements of shared national experience, values, and identity to build a national character out of the diversity from which we come.

We may disagree among ourselves as to the worth of the consequences of Columbus' landing in the Western Hemisphere, but we can not seriously deny that his landing shaped life and even landscape in the United States. We can debate the larger issues surrounding Anglo-American expansion that Custer's battlefield at Crow Agency symbolizes, but we cannot deny that it symbolizes a defining time in American history. We can argue whether it is ecologically sound to fight fires in Yellowstone National Park, but we can not fail to see that the very disagreement is an expression of values that we place in what we call "natural" environments. It is the ability of unique places, landscapes, environments, events, and people to become part of the national character that constitutes "national significance" and warrants protection within the National Park System.

The resources protected by the National Park System harbor lessons that the nation wishes and needs to teach itself and replenish in itself, again and again, visitor after visitor. Thus, just as it is the responsibility of the system to protect and nurture resources of significance to the nation, so must it also convey the meanings of those resources/their contributions to the nation/to the public in a continuing process of building the national community.

It is the nature of park resources that their meanings can and should be conveyed in a multitude of ways. For some units, this may occur through acts of restive or active recreation, experiencing the link between park resources and elements of the national identity in ways that words and pictures can not adequately impart. A hike in Glacier National Park arguably conveys our heritage of western wildness better than the necessary lecture on the need for bear bells or any other preparatory introductions. For some park resources, on-site interpretative oral, visual, and/or written communication may be appropriate and necessary. How else to convey to the public the intricate ecology of Everglades National Park or the link between Fort McHenry and all that has followed its period of brief excitement, or Ellis Island and its indelible print on our diverse people? Across the units of the Park System, the methods may vary, but the responsibility to tell each unit's story is inseparable from the reasons we protect that story.

The ability of our national historic sites, cultural symbols, and natural environments to contribute to the public's sense of a shared national identity is at the core of the purpose of the National Park Service. The vision of the Park Service that necessarily follows is one in which the agency's purpose is to preserve, protect, and convey the meaning of those natural, cultural and historical resources that contribute significantly to the nation's values, character, and experience. To fully meet the challenge of this vision in the coming decades, the National Park Service will need uncommon clarity in its policies and compelling leadership in its management. The Steering Committee believes that the Service should be guided in these directions by key strategic objectives that can direct the agency's planning for the future. We have identified six such objectives as paramount.


Resource Stewardship and Protection: The primary responsibility of the National Park Service must be protection of park resources from internal and external impairment.

The mission of preserving and protecting the national treasures that belong in the National Park System can only be met if the Park Service can confront the threats to park resources and has the means of dealing with those threats. The evolving economics and demographics of America are driving economic, social and ecological changes in the regions outside unit boundaries. These changes often can impair park resources. Many formerly remote natural area parks, for example, are seeing increasing suburbanization around their boundaries—often spurred by state and local governments anxious to capitalize on tourism-led regional growth. Similarly, many cultural and historic sites in and near urban areas are fighting to maintain the quality of their park units as their neighborhoods struggle with severe economic and social problems.

Thus, although there is ambivalence and uncertainty among park personnel, the mandate of resource protection means that the prevention of external and transboundary impairment of park resources and their attendant values should be a central objective of Park System policy. Giving force to such a goal will require policies which recognize that:

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should provide technical and planning assistance to public and private parties able to mitigate external and transboundary threats to park unit resources, and to those able to influence the quality of visitor enjoyment and enlightenment through their provision of gateway services.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should utilize available resources, expertise and cooperative relationships to ensure compliance with applicable law when external activities otherwise endanger park resources.

RECOMMENDATION—Each park unit should be managed to protect unimpaired the special resources and values that constitute its contribution to the national identity and experience. Such values may include a unit's unique historic significance, cultural lessons, wilderness traits, recreational opportunities, and/or ecological systems.

RECOMMENDATION—Natural resources in the park system should be managed under ecological principles that prevent their impairment. Cultural diversity and social and historical contexts should be recognized as significant values in the protection and stewardship of historical and cultural resources.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should seek active public and private partners engaged in resource protection, research, education, and visitor enjoyment that are consistent with the objectives of protecting park values and conveying their meaning to the public.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should reinforce its role as a world leader in park affairs through agreements and actions which facilitate the exchange of information, development of environmental and cultural resource preservation strategies, and protection of critical world resources.

RECOMMENDATION—Programs, such as an American Heritage Area program, should be established to preserve and protect natural, cultural and historical resources that are worthy of national recognition, but that do not meet the requirements necessary for full inclusion in the National Park System. Such programs should make use of public and private sector partnerships, technical assistance, and Park Service support.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should fully implement, and be provided requisite funding for, existing legislative mandates under Public Law 88-29, requiring the Department of Interior to produce at five-year intervals a nationwide recreation plan; the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act; the Urban Parks and Recreation Resources Act; the Historic Preservation Fund Act, and related statutes.


Access and Enjoyment: Each park unit should be managed to provide the nation's diverse public with access to and recreational and educational enjoyment of the lessons contained in that unit, while maintaining unimpaired those unique attributes that are its contribution to the National Park System.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should minimize the development of facilities within the park boundaries to the extent consistent with the mission of conveying each individual park unit's significance to the public.

RECOMMENDATION—Where wilderness values are present, impairment of those values should not be compromised.

RECOMMENDATION—The repair and maintenance of existing park facilities should be undertaken and designed to fulfill the purpose of conveying park values to the public, while protecting the special qualities of each park unit.

RECOMMENDATION—Facilities that are purely for the convenience of visitors should be provided by the private sector in gateway communities.


Education and Interpretation: It should be the responsibility of the National Park Service to interpret and convey each park unit's and the park system's contributions to the nation's values, character, and experience.

RECOMMENDATION—Each visitor to a park unit should have access to a basic interpretation of the unit's unique features and significance. The Park Service should invest in innovative expansions of its ability to provide interpretation that enhances visitor enjoyment and enlightenment.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should launch a specific program of educational outreach, directed at schools and community groups and designed to maximize the public's access to the unique ecological, historical, cultural, and geologic lessons contained in the park system

RECOMMENDATION-The National Park Service should embark upon a systematic, park-by-park, usable inventory of information on park resources and visitor needs.

RECOMMENDATION—Comprehensive information on park unit resources and public needs, acquired by resource professionals and solicited from citizens, should be incorporated directly into the management of park units and other agency programs which serve the public.


Proactive Leadership: The National Park Service must be a leader in local, national and international park affairs, actively pursuing the mission of the National Park System and assisting others in managing their park resources and values.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should establish a headquarters Office of Legislative and Policy Analysis, and reestablish within this office a corresponding legislative program.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should establish an Office of Strategic Planning, charged with documenting impediments to the mission of the National Park Service, generating feasible solutions and funding requirements, and communicating these to the Director and the Office of Legislative and Policy Analysis.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should reestablish an areas study program, covering both natural and heritage resources and charged with initiating and responding to proposals for park system additions. This program could be based within the Office of Strategic Planning.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should clarify existing legislative and regulatory authorities for addressing external and transboundary resource threats, ensure their use, and seek additional legislative authority where needed.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should initiate an intensive training program for managers to explain authorities, mechanisms and strategies for addressing external and transboundary issues, and to help managers view the natural, cultural, and historical contexts of their units.

RECOMMENDATION—The management and resources of the National Park Service should be focused to maximize educational, recreational, and cultural value in the park units and other agency programs which serve the public.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should assess its capabilities for decentralized management. Effective decentralized organization will require: functions of support and service to the parks, liaison with non-Service parties, systems of accountability and control, training in management principles, and broader grants of authority to superintendents and staff in line operations.


Science and Research: The National Park Service must engage in a sustained and intergrated program of natural, cultural and social science resource management and research aimed at acquiring and using the information needed to manage and protect park resources.

RECOMMENDATION—Secure legislation and funding that support a research mandate for the Park Service.

RECOMMENDATION—Accelerate the training of Park Service managers in information management and the role, use and production of research information.

RECOMMENDATION—Base resource protection, access and interpretation decisions and programs on full consideration of the best available scientific research; where quality information is lacking, initiate it through Park Service resource management professionals.


Professionalism: The National Park Service must create and maintain a highly professional organization and workforce.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should establish and/or raise educational requirements as appropriate for professional track positions, including those that require strong bases of technical, scientific, interpretative, administrative, and/or managerial knowledge.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should strengthen recruitment, hiring and retention of a culturally diverse professional workforce.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should implement a comprehensive program of broad-based, mission-driven employee training.

RECOMMENDATION—All National Park Service employees should receive basic orientation training that covers the agency's objectives, purpose, history, and organization.

RECOMMENDATION—National Park Service training should focus on development of present and future management and leadership capabilities, as well as appropriate professional and technical skills.

RECOMMENDATION—Working with the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget, the National Park Service should undertake a comprehensive review of its existing compensation structure. This review should be conducted under needs criteria derived from the mission of the Park Service and in light of professional compensation structures in related resource agencies.

RECOMMENDATION—The National Park Service should create a Human Resources Management Board with responsibility for senior management assignment, training and development, and for developing the agency's plans for training, career advancement procedures, and educational requirements.


This report describes a vision of the National Park Service, embodied in six Strategic Objectives, as an assertive, fully capable agency with the ability to manage the National Park System and ensure its protection for future generations. If these Strategic Objectives are the pillars of National Park Service policy and management, adequate funding must be the base of the pillars. There is a cost to ensuring the ongoing protection of America's heritage.

The Steering Committee believes that adequate funding for the National Park Service should continue to be a Federal responsibility, and that Congress is the appropriate source of funding for the operation and management of the System. Public/private partnerships are a valuable tool for maintaining a margin of excellence in Park System programs and for funding special projects of the Service or the park units. Reliance on private funding sources for core functions, however, risks dependency and dilution of the National Park Service's ability to pursue its central purposes. In addition, outside funding can be particularly unstable and insufficient to address core problems.

The National Park Service contributes to the common good. It protects continuing public access to and enjoyment of the resources which symbolize and contribute to our national character and heritage. As such, the National Park System is an important part of America's infrastructure. Like our system of highways, which stretches from shore to shore connecting people and communities, and like the country's bridges, which span vast canyons and waterways, the National Park System ties together the separate elements of environment, history and culture which help to make one nation of the American people. This infrastructure that is the Park System has been steadfastly supported by the American people for many decades. It should not now be allowed to deteriorate.

RECOMMENDATION—The units and programs of the National Park System should be viewed as critical components of the nation's infrastructure. Congressional funding of the National Park Service must be fully adequate to meet the responsibilities of maintaining and enhancing this infrastructure.

RECOMMENDATION—Funding under programs such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act should be provided to the National Park Service to the full extent authorized.

RECOMMENDATION—The policy of returning fifty percent of visitor fees to park units should be reaffirmed and implemented.


RECOMMENDATION—Within twenty-four months, the National Park Service should issue a comprehensive report on the "State of the National Park Service," assessing the progress and prospects for meeting the strategic objectives of the agency.


A long and complex process to repair and strengthen the foundations of one of the nation's most prized institutions has begun. The individuals charged with implementing the "Vail Agenda" are accepting an immense responsibility and assuming considerable professional risk. Some of their efforts will succeed, while others will not yield satisfactory results. None of these efforts, however, will be failures. The only failure will be inaction. It is incumbent upon the Director of the National Park Service, the Secretary of the Interior, the Administration, and Congress to provide the support and leadership that is needed. The commitments to a sound future for the National Park Service are strong; expectations are high. The opportunity for progress should not be missed.

National Park Service Document Number D-726, 9-16, objectives and recommendations from pages 17-42. Report also available from the National Park Foundation.

NEXT>Science and the National Parks, 1992


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

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