NPS Fundamentals Essentials: Law and Policy


Whether you are a new employee or interested in employment with the National Park Service, understanding how the organization functions is vital to your success. Are all parks the same?  How is the work divided? How are the sites managed?  What do the different divisions do?

Known as “Essentials,” these topics provide insight into how the National Park Service manages the entire system of parks and programs to accomplish its mission.  Reading through each topic gives an overview at the most basic level with opportunities to link to more in-depth, specific information.


The regulations and policies of the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service flow from public law – setting the direction for the work we do.

As government employees, we must be careful in the actions we take, making sure we have the authority to act. We must have AUTHORIZATION. This comes through “authorizing” or “enabling” legislation.

Authority for the National Park Service and National Park System

Under the Constitution, the federal government has limited powers. The authority for creating national parks is found in the Constitution under the “Property Clause” (Article IV, Section 3). “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….”

“Dispose of” is used in the sense of, “the act of transferring care, ownership or possession, or ownership to another”. Congress determined that it was “needful” to conserve certain lands unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. The authority for creating the National Park Service is found in The “Necessary and Proper Clause” (Article I, Section 8).

Congress shall have the right to…make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

The “foregoing powers” and “all other powers” are the enumerated powers given to the legislative branch. In exercising those powers, Congress created the Department of the Interior and gave the Secretary of the Interior certain powers and responsibilities. Various secretaries have organized the department in a way that would allow for the efficient implementation of the laws applicable to national parks. Secretarial action eventually led to the establishment of the NPS by Congress.

Under the leadership of the President of the United States and the Secretary of the Interior, the NPS implements or executes Federal laws and runs the day-to-day affairs of the agency. Execution of the law often requires interpretation of the law, which can take the form of executive orders, policies, regulations, and/or management decisions (See Relationship Between Law, Regulation, and Policy).

Hierarchy of Authority

All authority is not equal, there is a “hierarchy” and each level of authority must support or follow the authorities above it.

Chart depicting the NPS hierarchy of authority

At the park level, General Management Plans and Superintendent’s Orders fall below NPS Level 3 Guidance Documents in the hierarchy.

Through its regulations and internal policies, the NPS has authority to use its own judgment in deciding how to manage the parks. The last two levels are referred to collectively as the NPS Directives System.

NPS Directives System

The Directives System is itself a hierarchy of three levels.

Chart depicting NPS Directives System

Level 1 – Management Policies

Part 1 is the current edition of which deals with managing the National Park System (see 2006 National Park Service Management Policies).

Part 2 is a companion volume to NPS Management Policies which describes responsibilities for managing a broad range of conservation, recreation, and preservation programs – beyond the national parks.

Level 2 – Director’s Order

Director’s Orders are prepared by program managers in coordination with the Office of Policy. They:

  • Can be used to update and supplement Level 1
  • Contain procedures/responsibilities
  • Delegate authority
  • Are brief and to the point
  • Sometimes require public review

Level 3 – Handbooks, Reference Materials, etc.

Handbooks and Reference Manuals are very comprehensive. They:

  • Incorporate Levels 1 and 2
  • Can include examples, best practices, etc.
  • Are issued by Associate Directors

Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs

The National Park Service Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs (OLCA) is responsible for the development and implementation of strategies to advance the NPS’s legislative initiatives and other interests relating to Congress. These functions are important to the NPS’s cooperative and productive relationship with Congress.

OLCA serves to:

  • Articulate the NPS’s position on legislation proposed by Congress in testimony, statements for the record, and views letters
  • Facilitate the appearance of NPS witnesses at congressional hearings
  • Coordinate the NPS’s responses to congressional committee oversight requests and other inquiries from individual members and congressional staff


Federal statutes prohibit the use of appropriated funds for activities that directly or indirectly are “intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, to favor or oppose…any legislation or appropriation by Congress.”

Issues and Challenges

Laws, regulations, and policies are subject to change. What was legal and acceptable to do one day can be illegal and unacceptable the next. It is important to make sure actions you take are in line with current law, regulation and policies.

Additional Resources

US Constitution

National Park Service, Office of Policy

National Park Service, Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs

US Government Publishing Office (GPO)

Current Legislative Activities

Congressional Budget Office

Government Accountability Office

Director’s Order #76

National Park Service Laws

The following laws compilations have been compiled and edited by the National Park Service. We have made every effort to have as complete and accurate a text as possible. We encourage you to recheck the Statues at Large if you have any doubt about the official text of any law. These texts are searchable.

National Park Service Law 

16 U.S. Code Chapter 1 – NATIONAL PARKS, MILITARY PARKS, MONUMENTS, AND SEASHORES | U.S. Code | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute (cornell.edu)

Antiquities Act of 1906 – Archeology (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov) 


Proclamations and Orders

Proclamations and Orders for the years following 2001 are included in the corresponding years Supplemental Law Compilations.

Proclamations and Orders Relating to the National Park Service, Vol. I Up to January 1, 1945

Proclamations and Orders Relating to the National Park Service, Vol. II January 1, 1945 – January 20, 2001

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  3. Well I should have realized we have a very rich Constitutional history – even when it comes to our Law and Policy.
    Helpful to know it is the “Property Clause” (Article IV) of the Constitution that gives us our legs to stand on. That the “Necessary and Proper Clause” (Article I) allows our Service to continue.
    The 7 levels of Hierarchy clearly put the Constitution at the top. The last two levels our the NPS Directives System are where we find yet another breakdown into 3 levels – of Guidance Documents:
    1) Management Policies, 2) Directors Orders, and 3) Handbooks – Reference Manuals (for the rest of us:)
    The Challenges faced are for us and too the OLCA to keep abreast of new laws to be followed.

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  10. The visual breakdown does a good job sharing how operations are handled. i also like how you explain in detail how the Department of Interior – national Park Service fits into our Constitution and federal operations.

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