Service-wide policy is issued by the Director of the National Park Service. Adherence to policy is mandatory unless specifically waived or modified by the Secretary of the Interior, the Assistant Secretary, or the NPS Director.

Regional, associate, and assistant directors, within formal delegations of authority, may issue supplemental policies, instructions, directives, and other forms of guidance of regional or otherwise limited application that conform with Service-wide policies.

Superintendents, within formal delegations of authority from regional directors, may set park-specific instructions, procedures, directives, and other guidance that supplement and conform with applicable NPS policies (for example, hours of operation, seasonal opening dates, or procedures for implementing Service-wide policies).

Congress may establish policy as it passes laws that apply to the NPS. Other sources of policy applicable to the NPS are issued by the President, the Secretary of the Interior, and other Federal agencies, such as the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration

The NPS Organic Act sets broad policies for the National Park System. These policies tell us the fundamental purpose for setting aside national parks is to conserve "the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein." They also tell us we are to provide for the enjoyment of the parks "in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Congress has also established broad policies on specific topics such as concessions management and protecting wild and scenic rivers. Through the enabling legislation for many parks, Congress has included specific policies applicable to those parks. These sometimes vary markedly from the generic legislation. For example, Congress has authorized hunting in some units of the National Park System.

Beyond the national parks, Congress has established policies that govern the many program activities the NPS administers to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and recreation throughout this country and the world.

Congress’s broad, legislated policies are somewhat general and usually do not specify how to achieve the end goals. Fortunately, the Organic Act authorizes the NPS to "regulate the use" of national parks. This means we may develop more detailed policies to carry out the overarching policies set by Congress. Management Policies articulates those detailed policies and governs the way NPS managers make decisions on a wide range of issues. If or when necessary, Director’s Orders may modify or supplement Management Policies.

Legislation establishing broad policy for NPS outreach programs, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and historic preservation programs, allows the NPS to develop policies to meet their specific management needs.

In general, regulations are mechanisms for implementing laws and enforcing policies established by the Director.

Most National Park Service regulations are published in title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations.They are basically detailed statements of how policies prescribed by the Director (or higher authorities) will be applied to the people who use the parks. They are published as regulations because we cannot enforce rules unless we first publish them as a "rulemaking." For example, we cannot issue a citation to a visitor who lets his dog run loose unless there is a specific regulation that prohibits that activity in a park. Once policies are published in this form, they apply to everyone. They are non-discretionary, and their violation may invoke a fine or imprisonment, or both.

We also publish regulations to tell the public how we will administer various programs, such as

  • concession activities

  • the National Register of Historic Places

  • the Land and Water Conservation Fund

Current National Park Service policy documents are posted online at https://www.nps.gov/policy [insert updated URL].

Yes, older Director's Orders with sunset dates that have passed are still valid. National Park Service staff should continue to abide by them. 

When the National Park Service initiated the new directives system in 1996, a "sunset date" seemed like a good idea. But we came to realize the renewal process imposed an unnecessary and burdensome workload. For this reason, new Director's Orders don't include a sunset date. This decision also applies retroactively to older Director's Orders. When older Director's Orders are updated, the sunset date is removed. In both cases, new wording indicates the Director's Order will remain in effect until revised or rescinded.

A clear understanding of what is or is not mandatory can be obtained from key words contained in the various guidance documents (regardless of whether those documents are policy statements, Director’s Orders, guidelines, manuals, memoranda, etc.). The key words are must, will, may, and should. These words are unambiguous; they can mean only one thing. When we see the words must or will (or must not, will not) used in any guidance document there is no reason to ask if it is mandatory or not—it is mandatory.

The only question you may need to ask is whether the person who issued the guidance document has the authority to tell you that you must or will do something. Generally, only the Director issues Service-wide guidance of a mandatory nature. The Director may also delegate authority to an associate or assistant director to issue required standards or procedures (Level 3 guidance) or may delegate authority to regional directors to prescribe requirements applicable region-wide.

Federal laws prohibit the National Park Service from taking any action that would impair park resources and values, unless specifically provided by Congress. See Management Policies, section 1.4 (Park Management) for policy guidance on this topic. [insert link to section 1.4]

It is important to the future of the National Park System and NPS programs that National Park Service managers and employees apply Service-wide policies and procedures judiciously and consistently. The integrity of the directives system is maintained through employee performance reviews. Failure to comply with established policies and procedures may indicate

  • a lack of knowledge;

  • a lack of thoroughness;

  • unsound judgment and decision-making; or

  • insubordination.

Unless stated otherwise, Management Policies and Director's Orders are intended only to improve the internal management of the National Park Service. They are not intended to, and do not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or equity by a party against the United States, its departments, agencies, instrumentalities or entities, its officers or employees, or any other person. However, some National Park Service policies simply reiterate regulations or statutes, and they carry the force and effect of law. Violating those policies could lead to more serious consequences.

Adherence to the Service-wide policies found in Management Policies, Director's Orders, and Policy Memoranda is mandatory unless waived in writing by the Director.

Learn more about the procedures for submitting a request for a policy waiver.

Many people and organizations, including the travel and tourism industry, recreational equipment manufacturers, environmental organizations, take great interest in the way the national parks are managed. They also have a strong belief in their right to take part in the decision-making process.

This belief is supported by the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires agencies to give the public an opportunity to comment on major policy decisions that will affect them.

Further, National Park Service and Department of the Interior policies dictate that we seek and consider public comment through Federal Register notices and other selective means as we adopt Director’s Orders and update Management Policies, just as we routinely do with regulations.

However, we do not generally seek public comment on operational matters that are likely to be of limited or no interest to the public.

Last updated: April 3, 2024