Federal Laws Significant to the Natural Resource Career Field

Below is a list of federal laws related to natural resource management. These laws provide a glimpse into the foundation of the National Park Service’s (NPS) constitutional authority, as well as the laws that created and strengthened it. They also represent highlights from key environmental legislation that contributes to the preservationist nature of the NPS. This list is not meant to be all inclusive; numerous laws can be found outside this list.

Service-wide laws, such as the National Park Service Organic Act and the National Park System General Authorities Act, used to reside in Title 16 of the US Code. However, Title 16 was becoming large and disorganized, as it included laws from multiple land management and other federal agencies. To address this, in December 2014, Congress created a new Title 54 of the US Code, that includes only laws applicable to the National Park Service.

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US Constitution

Enumerated Powers Article I. Section 8

Interstate Commerce Clause: To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;

Enumerated Powers Article IV. Section 3

Property Clause: The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to prejudice any claims of the United States, or of any particular state.

Yellowstone National Park Act

16 USC 21-22

Congress established the first national park in a remote corner of the Wyoming territory “… for the preservation… of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities and wonders… and their retention in their natural condition.”

Lacey Act

16 USC 3371 et seq.

The Lacey Act is the oldest federal wildlife protection statute. It now protects both plants and wildlife by creating civil, criminal and forfeiture penalties for certain violations. This includes the trafficking of “illegal” wildlife, i.e. fish, wildlife, or plants that have been taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of state, federal, tribal, or foreign law.

Antiquities Act

54 USC 320301-320303

Congress gave the President the power to create National Monuments, consisting of minimum amounts of federal lands necessary to protect historic, prehistoric, and scientific objects, by presidential proclamation.

National Park Service Organic Act

54 USC 100101(a) et seq.

Congress created the National Park Service and prescribed that the fundamental purpose of national parks, monuments, and other reservations is “to conserve the scenery, and the natural and historic objects and wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same… as will leave them unimpaired.”

The Organic Act as passed in 1916

Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA)

16 USC 703 et seq.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act includes agreements between the United States, Great Britain (for Canada), Mexico, Japan, and Russia. This act protects every bird in North America, except for house sparrows, starlings and pigeons, without requiring evidence of migration between the United States and treaty member nations. It makes illegal at any time to take by any manner, possess, sell, ship, export any migratory bird, part thereof, nest, egg, or product.

Wilderness Act

16 USC 1131-1136

With the Wilderness Act, Congress established the National Wilderness Preservation System by setting aside certain federal lands as wilderness areas. These areas, generally 5,000 acres or larger, are wild lands “…where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)

54 USC 300101 et seq.

This act reaffirms the nation’s responsibilities to provide stewardship of prehistoric and historic resources on federal lands and to provide leadership, encouragement, cooperation, financial incentives and/or other contributions to stewardship of prehistoric and historic resources on non-federal lands.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

42 USC 4321-4347

This landmark environmental protection legislation’s basic policy is to assure that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment. NEPA requires all federal agencies including the NPS to:

    • Prepare in-depth studies detailing the impacts of and alternatives to proposed “major federal actions;”
    • Use the information contained in such studies when deciding whether to proceed with the actions; and
    • Diligently attempt to involve the interested and affected public before any decision affecting the environment is made.

General Authorities Act

54 USC 100101(b) et seq.

Congress redefined the National Park System to be “…any area of land and water… administered by the Secretary… through the National Park Service for park, monument, historic, parkway, recreational, or other purposes.”

Congress stated that all units of the system are united in one system and that the system is to be preserved and managed for the benefit and inspiration of all the people of the Untied States. This act makes clear that, in addition to the unit-enabling act, the Organic Act governs all units.

The General Authorities Act as passed in 1970

Clean Water Act

33 USC 1251-1387

The Clean Water Act establishes the federal role in protecting the nation’s waters beyond simply maintaining their navigability. It sets a goal of making the nation’s waters suitable for fishing and swimming by adoption of water quality standards for each body of water. States take the lead but must not fall below the federal standard.

Clean Air Act

42 USC 7401-7671q

The Clean Air Act (CAA) is the comprehensive federal law that regulates air emissions from stationary and mobile sources. Among other things, this law authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and lead to protect public health and public welfare, and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants.

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.

The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The ESA is the US law that implements the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

Redwood National Park Expansion Act

PL 95-250

Congress amended the 1970 Act for Administration to make emphatic that the NPS is not to permit activities in derogation of park values and purposes except where Congress explicitly and directly provides for them.

Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA)

16 USC 470aa et seq.

“The purpose of this Act is to secure, for the present and future benefit of the American people, the protection of archaeological resources and sites which are on public lands and Indian lands.”

Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)

42 USC 9601-9675

The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, also known as the “Superfund” statue, was enacted to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites and to respond to future releases of hazardous substances into the environment.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

18 USC 1170 and 25 USC 3001 et seq.

This law prohibits anyone from knowingly trafficking in Native American human remains and cultural items.

System Unit Resource Protection Act (SURPA)

54 U.S.C. 100721-100725

This law, formerly known as 19jj, allows the NPS to seek compensation for injuries to park system resources, and to use the recovered funds to restore, replace, or acquire equivalent resources as well as to monitor and study these or similar resources. This law is a strict liability statute, which means no fault or intent is required to make a responsible party liable under this law.

National Parks Omnibus Management Act

54 USC 100701 et seq.

This bill, also known as the “Thomas Bill” after its primary sponsor, Senator Craig Thomas of Wyoming, authorizes and elevates science and natural resource protection within the National Park Service.

Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA)

PL 111-011

Title VI, Subtitle D of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-11) directs the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to implement a comprehensive paleontological resource management program on federal lands. The requirements in Subtitle D provide for increased protection, enhanced management tools, and greater scientific and public understanding of NPS fossil resources.

NPS Fossil and Paleontology resources, including research and permit information

John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act

PL 116–9

One of the largest conservation bills in recent history, this law includes provisions to authorize the establishment of three new NPS sites, permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, designates thousands of acres of new wilderness, and supports additional management and conservation of natural resources on federal lands.

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