Statement of Thomas C. Kiernan

Congressional Testimony

Thomas C. Kiernan, President
National Parks Conservation Association

National Park Service Management Policies

Presented to the
Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands
United States House of Representatives

April 25, 2002
Washington, D.C.

   The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) appreciates this opportunity to submit written testimony regarding the National Park Service's 2001 Management Policies. NPCA is America's only private, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated solely to protecting, preserving, and enhancing the national park system. NPCA was founded in 1919 and today has approximately 400,000 members. For over 80 years, NPCA has been dedicated to ensuring the protection and appropriate management of America's natural, cultural, and historic legacy—a legacy that is contained within the national park system.

   The National Park Service (NPS or the Service) is unique among federal land management agencies. The lands, wildlife, plants, artifacts, structures, processes, and values protected and managed by the Service all belong to an elite and internationally renowned system of preserves. Each unit within the national park system has been set aside because Congress has determined that it contains at least one "superlative" example of a "nationally significant" natural, cultural, historic, or recreational resource.

   When creating the Service in 1916, Congress directed the agency to,

"promote and regulate the use of the [parks] . . . by such means and measures as to conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

16 U.S.C. 1 (emphasis added).

   In the amendments to the Organic Act, Congress stated that park management "shall be conducted in light of the high public value and integrity of the National Park System and shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which these various areas have been established…" And further that the national park system is to be "preserved and managed for the benefit and inspiration of all the people of the United States." 16 USC 1a-1

   These directives found in the 1916 Organic Act and the 1970 and 1978 amendments thereto, impose mandatory obligations on the Service to prevent impairment of park resources and values and, consistent with that requirement, to provide for enjoyment of those resources by park visitors. They require park managers to exercise informed and careful judgments to protect all park resources to the greatest extent possible, to minimize adverse impacts, and to avoid any action that may cause impairment of park resources. Providing a quality visitor experience is contingent upon having first ensured the full and uncompromised protection of park resources.

    Given the significant and unique mandate Congress has given to the National Park Service, it is natural, indeed it is necessary, that the agency have a clear set of policies and principles to guide its management decisions as it works to fulfill its critical mission. It is essential that the Service have a single, instructive document that can be used by each of the agency's managers. Congress has stated that all park units, "though distinct in character, are united through their inter-related purposes and resources into one national park system as cumulative expressions of a single national heritage." And further that "the promotion and regulation of the various areas of the National Park System . . . shall be consistent with and founded in the purpose established by the [Organic Act] to the common benefit of all the people of the United States." 16 USC 1a-1

   The Service's 2001 Management Policies (Policies) serve the vital role of providing each park manager with the information necessary to make most policy-based park management decisions. While not a radical departure from the 1988 guidance, the 2001 Management Policies continue an important evolution in park management principles and practices. The Policies contain new guidance that is based on laws and regulations that have been enacted since the previous edition as well as more detailed guidance based on the agency's 85 year old Organic Act.

   Of most significance is the explicit statement by the agency regarding the primacy of park resource protection:

"While Congress has given the Service the management discretion to allow certain impacts within parks, that discretion is limited by the statutory requirement (enforceable by the federal courts) that the Park Service must leave park resources and values unimpaired, unless a particular law directly and specifically provides otherwise. This, the cornerstone of the Organic Act, establishes the primary responsibility of the National Park Service. It ensures that park resources and values will continue to exist in a condition that will allow the American people to have present and future opportunities for enjoyment of them."

National Park Service 2001 Management Policies § 1.4.4

   At times over the course of its history, the Service has struggled with making management decisions in light of the agency's mandate both to preserve park resources and to provide for their enjoyment. On numerous occasions, agency confusion regarding its mandate has led to management decisions in different parks or at different times that appear contradictory. The Service's congressional mandate, however, does not burden the agency with the impossible task of managing the parks while attempting to balance two co-equal interests: resource protection and visitor enjoyment.

   The agency's formal recognition that it is impossible to carry out its mandate to provide for the enjoyment of park resources until it has first ensured their protection is one of the most significant steps forward in the history of park policy. To weaken or eliminate this section of the management policies would not only set the Service back several decades, it would be contrary to Congress' clear intent regarding the management of our national parks.

   NPCA is aware that some have expressed concern regarding the impact of the new Policies on the public's ability to visit the parks and enjoy park resources. Over the past year and a half, since the publication first of Director's Order 55 and subsequently the full 2001 Management Policies, the Service has not taken any steps that would unnecessarily restrict opportunities to visit the parks. The 2001 Management Policies do not impose any limitations beyond those that exist within the Organic Act itself.

   As discussed earlier, national parks are unique among public lands. Each unit has been set aside to preserve and promote the enjoyment of one or more specific resources. Their distinctive place among federal lands dictates that not every form of access or every type of activity will be appropriate within the parks. Activities and developments that would impair park resources or adversely impact the ability of visitors to enjoy and be "inspired" by these special places have always been prohibited by the Organic Act.

   Congress' clear direction that the parks be open and accessible for visitor enjoyment signifies that not all activities, uses, or developments that have an impact on park resources rise to the level of impairment. The Act surely does not prohibit all activities or developments within parks—even those that are found to have an adverse impact on park resources are permissible if the park manager has sought to avoid or minimize such impacts and if the impacts are "necessary and appropriate to fulfill the purposes of a park, [and] so long as the impact does not constitute impairment of the affected resources and values." National Park Service 2001 Management Policies § 1.4.3

   Another important section of the new Policies is the list of the resources and values that are covered by the non-impairment standard, a portion of which appears below:

"The park's scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife, and the processes and conditions that sustain them, including, to the extent present in the park: the ecological, biological, and physical processes that created the park and continue to act upon it; scenic features; natural visibility, both in daytime and at night; natural landscapes; natural soundscapes and smells; water and air resources; soils; geological resources; paleontological resources; archeological resources; cultural landscapes; ethnographic resources; historic and prehistoric sites, structures, and objects; museum collections; and native plants and animals."

National Park Service 2001 Management Policies § 1.4.6

   The Service's mandate to provide for the enjoyment of park resources is not limited to educational materials and visual impressions. To the fullest extent possible, the Park Service is to preserve or restore and then make available all of the elements that define a place—elements such as dark night and clear day skies, natural soundscapes, and natural smells. Parks are meant to be places in which the visitor is totally immersed in the experience of place, history, and context. These are to be places where people can escape the sights and sounds that consume their daily lives.

   NPCA believes that these resources, experiences, and values are important to the Administration as well. In a speech given in September, 2000 then Governor George Bush stated, "America's first environmental president, Theodore Roosevelt, talked of the value of 'silent places, unworn by man.' These places inspired him—and he inspired our government to protect them. I view protecting America's 'silent places' as an ongoing responsibility, a shared commitment of the American people and our government."

   For these and a host of other significant reasons, NPCA believes that the principles and practices contained within the 2001 Management Policies are essential elements of the Park Service's management guidance system. As stated earlier, the weakening or elimination of these policies would not only set the Park Service back decades, it would be contrary to Congress' clear intent regarding the management of our national parks.

   We appreciate the opportunity to present this written testimony and look forward to continuing to work with the Subcommittee to ensure that the resources and values of our national park system are preserved unimpaired for the enjoyment of this and future generations.


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