NPS Fundamentals Essentials: Planning


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 National Park Service uses planning to bring logic, analysis, public involvement, and accountability into the decision-making process. Park planning helps define resource conditions, visitor experiences, and management actions that, as a whole, will best achieve the NPS mandate to preserve resources unimpaired for the enjoyment of present and future generations (see the NPS Organic Act of 1916).

Planning helps the NPS to meet our obligations to laws, regulations, and policies and it supports informed decision-making. It allows for public participation. If done correctly, planning helps accomplish objectives in all NPS operational fields.

Planning provides methods and tools for resolving issues in ways that minimize conflicts and promote mutually beneficial solutions — solutions that articulate how public enjoyment of the parks can be part of a strategy that ensures resources are protected unimpaired for future generations.

One important outcome the NPS strives for when planning for national park units is to hear from its partners and the public on park issues, such as services to visitors, resource protection, wildlife management, recreational uses and commercial vendors in parks. Planning allows for partner and public input and gives them an opportunity to express their concerns and ideas.

Two men write notes on a flip chart
Planning meeting at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

The Goal of Planning

The goal of planning is to anticipate and evaluate impacts, and to avoid unacceptable impacts and/or impairment (see NPS Management Policies 2006 – chapter 1), prior to implementation, and to make good decisions. The National Park Service must ensure that the decisions made for parks achieve the National Park Service’s mission and the parks’ purposes as effectively and efficiently as possible…to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources of the National Park Service.

Planning is organized around three questions:

  1. WHY was this unit of the National Park System established?
  2. WHAT are the conditions we want to achieve?
  3. HOW can the desired conditions be achieved?

The answers to these questions come from various sources, including a park unit’s enabling legislation, or presidential proclamation, as well as from NPS staff and stakeholders.

The NPS Planning Framework

The Planning Framework is designed to be:

  • Nimble – responds quickly to park needs
  • Collaborative – takes down the “silos” between different offices and programs
  • Flexible – supports a range of plans
  • Sustainable – is cost effective and efficient

The planning framework, which was implemented in 2012, allows the NPS national planning program to offer planning products to parks that were not previously available. Funds can be used to develop a wide variety of products, not just general management plans, as had been true in the past.

chart outlines the NPS Planning Framework

The Planning Framework will meet park needs by:

  • Expanding opportunities to leverage funding and staffing
  • Enhancing coordination with other programs both inside and outside the NPS
  • Augmenting permanent planning staff at the regions

Types of Plans

In addition to general management plans, there are dozens of different planning products and studies done in the NPS, such as:

  • Wilderness plans
  • Commercial services plans
  • Fire management plans
  • Wild and scenic rivers plans
  • Trails management plans
  • Natural and cultural resources plans

Each of these is tailored to meet a specific need. Most, but not all, planning products require compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires federal agencies to fully consider the environmental impacts of their proposed actions before they make any decision to undertake those actions. Click on the link in Additional Resources for a list of many of the NPS planning products and studies.

Issues and Challenges

Flip chart with writing
Flip Chart from Public Meeting, Yosemite National Park
  • Meeting the needs of visitors while also protecting natural and cultural resources.
  • Providing visitor enjoyment opportunities to conflicting user groups (e.g., fishermen and boaters wanting to use the same area in a coastal park).
  • Outlining future desired conditions for resources and visitor enjoyment and receiving the funding to meet those conditions.
  • Getting the different programs (i.e., interpretation and education, natural resources, cultural resources, facilities, business services, visitor and resource protection, fire, etc.) to come together as an interdisciplinary team and respecting each programs’ needs and mission. Planning should be a collaborative process across all the programs.
  • Being able to meet park and program needs within the new planning framework.

Additional Resources

Several NPS offices and programs do planning. Some examples include:

Write a Review

  1. Rating:

  2. Rating:

  3. What did you find useful about them? Planning frameworks are REALLY important to help planners stay on task and focused. this is a great start.

    What were your take-aways? Though I’ve been at a park for a few years, I have rarely seen distant aimpoint planning. It’s too easy to get caught up in the issue du jour.
    Was there anything you found surprising? That NPS had a framework.
    What lingering questions do you have? Thinking through the best way to use this framework to help us guide our planning locally.

  4. Rating:

  5. I like the “Framework For Park Planning” graphic, especially the circular arrow with “monitor” on the bottom. Which implies a dynamic process; make a plan, implement a plan, monitor impact, make adjustments to the plan and so on.


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