What It Is

The NPS Foundational Laws, compiled by the NPS Office of Policy, lists some of the many important laws that apply directly and indirectly to the daily operations of the National Park Service.

Agency-specific Laws

These laws provide a basic understanding regarding the “legal landscape” that shapes our understanding of the NPS mission today. Congress has sometimes given us very specific agency direction, sometimes included us under laws that affect multiple agencies, and in some cases the courts have further provided interpretation of these laws, creating additional legal requirements. They affect our daily actions in ways that may not always be obvious. Below is a sampling of these laws:

  • Yellowstone Act (1872) ~ Created the first National Park, laid a philosophical foundation for NPS land use philosophy
  • Antiquities Act (1906) ~ First federal act to protect cultural resources, also has allowed growth of the system
  • National Park Service Organic Act (1916)
  • Wilderness Act (1964) ~ Established the NPS, and prescribed a single mission of conservation later interpreted as preservation of natural and cultural resources.
  • National Historic Preservation Act (1966)
  • National Park System General Authorities Act (1970) ~ Directed the NPS to manage all units of the “National Park System “consistently regardless of the unit title or prominent resource characteristic (natural, historic, recreational).
  • National Rifle Association v. Potter (1986) ~ This court case established that “conserve” in the Organic Act means preserve (no consumptive uses unless provided for by Congress).

Government-wide Laws

There are many other laws important to National Park Service operations that often apply to agencies throughout the federal government and include:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
  • Architectural Barriers Act of 1968
  • Clean Air Act
  • Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Why It Matters

Congress and the courts have repeatedly given direction to the NPS regarding its mission. Although the NPS Organic Act contains language that mandates “enjoyment,” it is important that NPS employees and the public understand that the enjoyment prescribed by law is of resources that are unimpaired. The legal mandates are interpreted through our NPS Management Policies, Director’s Orders and Reference Manuals that should also be known to all employees. Congress and the Administration may change their direction of our actions over time; that is their prerogative. It is our responsibility to know and implement our actions legally and in accordance to policy, not management by whim.

“Indisputably preservation comes first in law. Indisputably it comes first in logic-without preservation the rest is utterly pointless.”
Robert Utley, “Toward a New Preservation Ethic” National Park Service Newsletter, October 15, 1974

Additional Information

A more comprehensive list of laws affecting NPS operations can be found at the National Park Service Office of Policy Site. You may discover additional laws that you want to consider.


Interested in learning more about NPS laws and policies? Check out additional resources available on the CLP!

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