NPS Fundamentals Essentials: Resource Management


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 (NPS) manages a broad array of natural and cultural resources in over 400 units spread across the United States and its territories. The NPS Organic Act established the mission for the NPS to: conserve these resources unimpaired for future generations and provide for their enjoyment. Appropriate management actions help to ensure natural and cultural resources are not injured or lost. Natural resources, processes, systems, and values are all included in the term “natural resources.”

Natural Resources include:

  • Biological resources (native plants, animals, and communities),
  • Biological processes, physical resources (air, water, geology, natural soundscapes, and dark night skies),
  • Physical processes (weather, erosion, wildland fire, cave formations),
  • Ecosystems and highly valued associated characteristics, such as scenic views.

Cultural Resources include:

  • Archeological resources (sites, artifact collections, associated documentation),
  • Ethnographic resources (sites, collections, values, traditions),
  • Museum collections (artifacts, specimens, archives, objects),
  • Cultural landscapes (historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes),
  • Historic and prehistoric structures and sites (bridges, buildings, roadways, monuments).

In addition, the NPS works with communities to preserve and protect natural and cultural resources within and beyond park boundaries through partnership programs. These resources such as buildings, artifacts, petroglyphs, plants, animals, fossils, as well as clean air, night skies, soundscapes, etc., help us tell stories and share meanings, creating increased opportunities for visitors to connect with and become stewards of national parks.

The NPS has always been in the “resource conservation business.” The protection and management of NPS resources is challenging. The NPS strives to understand, maintain, restore, and protect integrated components of these landscapes to be preserved, while providing for meaningful and appropriate opportunities to enjoy them.

The National Parks Panorama video highlights the vast natural and cultural resources and values that we protect in the NPS.

History and Evolution of Resource Management in the NPS

Throughout the history of the NPS, societal values and individuals have shaped resource management in the national parks. From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, some people argued for conservation of resources for all, while others believed they should be used for individual gain. Both sides recognized increased visitation to protected areas was negatively impacting irreplaceable resources. The US Congress responded by enacting a series of laws to protect both natural and cultural resources on federal lands.

The early management of protected lands in the past century played an evolving role in resource management today.

Resource Management Today

Today, NPS resource management is characterized by:

  • Best available science: Resource management is driven by science, be it to understand changing species demographics, mitigate impacts from fire, restore a historic structure, or create an interpretive program.
  • Use of technology: Non-invasive methods to identify sites, databases to manage the data, use of GPS and GIS for locational data, websites.
  • Compliance activities: Federal law dictates the NPS conduct compliance and consultation to ensure management actions will not harm resources.
  • Planning: The NPS undertakes extensive planning and review to ensure future management actions in the short and long term will not detrimentally impact resources.
  • Increasing diversity: Resource management works to ensure that parks, resources, and stories reflect the diversity of our society.
  • Working beyond park borders: The NPS collaborates with local communities, governments, tribes, and stakeholders to ensure cooperative and collaborative management of resources.
  • Encouraging international visitation: NPS resources represent America to our visitors from foreign nations. More than ever before, international visitors come to national parks expecting to experience the best our nation has to offer. In addition, NPS resource managers travel to international parks to provide their expertise in helping with natural and resource protection.
  • Integrating resources with education and interpretation: Resource managers collaborate with educators and interpreters to integrate the best available data, scientific theories, stories, and meanings into programs that benefit all ages.
  • Commitment to scientific integrity: The first Departmental Policy for Scientific Integrity in the federal government was established by the Department of Interior in 2011. It describes processes to ensure that the scientific research conducted in parks meets the highest professional and ethical standards.

In 2012 the National Park System Advisory Board Science Committee published a report entitled, “Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks 2012.” Revisiting Leopold emphasizes urgency and opportunity in responding to the committee’s recommendations, and the importance of NPS resource management as an “enduring responsibility.” The key difference between present-day management of resources and the early decades of resources management is the degree to which science informs management. We must use the best available information to make good science-based decisions and “do no harm.” Harm runs the risk of impairing resources.

Guiding Principles of Resource Management in the NPS

National Park Service Management Policies interpret statues and case law and give direction for the resource management activities of the agency. Chapter one provides the foundation.

The NPS Obligation to Conserve and Provide for Enjoyment of Park Resources and Values
The fundamental purpose of the national park system, established by the Organic Act and reaffirmed by the General Authorities Act, as amended, begins with a mandate to conserve park resources and values. Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant. This is how courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act. (Management Policies: FOUNDATION 1.4.3). Not only physical resources (e.g. wildlife, water, mountains, historic buildings, Native American sites, etc.) are to be protected, but also processes, systems, values, and connections to people (migration, climate, geology, languages, traditions, etc.) as well.

Natural Resource Management Guiding Principle
The National Park Service will preserve and protect the natural resources, processes, systems, and values of units of the national park system in an unimpaired condition to perpetuate their inherent integrity and to provide present and future generations with the opportunity to enjoy them. (Management Policies: Chapter 4 – NATURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, p.35)

Cultural Resource Management Guiding Principle
The National Park Service will protect, preserve, and foster appreciation of the cultural resources in its custody and demonstrate its respect for the peoples traditionally associated with those resources through appropriate programs of research, planning, and stewardship. (Management Policies: Chapter 5 – CULTURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, p. 59)

Organization of Resource Management in the NPS

The resource career fields employ people in a variety of disciplines to do a variety of jobs related to resource management. As a rule-of-thumb, positions in large parks and WASO tend to be specialized, while those in small parks and regional offices tend to be more generalized. There are numerous job titles and series in resources management. Interdisciplinary collaboration is required for an effective resource management program.

Application of Resource Management in the NPS

Resource professionals utilize a variety of principles to address management issues and concerns. A general framework is shown in the graphic.

Applying Resource Management Principles

  1. Know your resources: First, you must know what you have. Find information through: research, inventorying, and monitoring. Utilize databases, libraries, and archives to find the information.
  2. Resource evaluation: Substantiate the condition, significance (national register), special status (endangered) of the resource by analyzing the information you find.
  3. Analyze condition and Identify risks and threats: Research should provide data to assess the vulnerability, significance, and potential threats to the resource in order to analyze the condition.
  4. Planning: Requires integration of all of the information found to be able to determine required consultation, preservation, and utilize science-based decisions for best management applications. Generally the decisions are utilized in resource stewardship plans, general management plans, or other types of documents for implementation and action.

Everyone Plays a Role

Every employee has a responsibility to support the NPS mission in preserving natural and cultural resources. Ultimately everyone, directly or indirectly, supports cultural and natural resource management in their day-to-day work.

  • Resources management provides subject matter expertise and information.
  • Interpretation develops waysides, exhibits, publications, formal education and interpretive programs, and other products that incorporate resource messages and teaches the public about the importance of the resources in our parks.
  • Visitor Resource Protection protects cultural and natural resources from harm or destruction
    Museum collections curators provide artifacts for displays and manage loans in and out of the collections
  • Partnerships and VIP’s assist with resources projects such as invasive plant removal, painting historic buildings, etc.
  • Maintenance works to minimize resource impacts when installing sewer/water lines, roads and trails
  • Skilled artisans restore and stabilize historic structures.
  • Planning secures funding needed to complete preservation and conservation projects.
  • Human Resources and administration ensure all needed positions are hired and employee needs (paperwork, training, payroll, etc.) are met to insure work is done effectively and efficiently.

Issues and Challenges Facing Resource Management

Diversity and Inclusion: Cultural resources reflect the history of people and cultures in the nation. The NPS System must be inclusive of a changing nation in the resources we manage, the stories we tell, and the communities we reach.

Climate change: The significance of resources depends not only on the stories they tell, but upon their location and integrity. Climate change brings new challenges to cultural and natural resource management: rising sea levels from melting ice would flood historic structures along the coast and populations of mountain pika would decease with warmer temperatures.

Public support/civic engagement: Engaging our public in the preservation and stewardship of our nation’s heritage is critical for long-term support of NPS work. This is not the work of any one division but a team effort from all staff.

Data and Data Management: The preservation and stewardship of park resources depends upon good data and stable systems for its management. Cultural resource managers need to know the locations of resources, their condition, and their significance. Natural resource managers need data collected over time to determine impacts and changes to the environment.

Invasive species: Invasive plants and animals continue to threaten native species in NPS units. Over 6,500 non-native invasive species have been documented on park lands and 70% of documented invasive species on park lands are invasive plants. Around 5% of park lands are dominated by invasive plants. More than 650 invasive species have been found in marine parks (approximately 10% of all invasive species found in national parks occur in marine environments). Energy extraction: As demand for oil, natural gas, and renewable energy continues to increase and newer technologies of mining are being developed, national parks may be impacted.Oil spills from offshore drilling rigs could affect beaches, wetlands, and marine life. Fracking with chemicals could potentially contaminate groundwater. Uranium and coal mining operations could create noise, traffic and pollution. Air pollution along with bright urban lights could affect natural night skies.

Russell E. Dickenson, former NPS Director, addressed the importance of resources management at the First World Conference on Cultural Parks in Mesa Verde NP in 1984:

“…Who cares? And why should one care? The fact is that each of us has a stake in the incredible living diversity of the earth we live in. The heritage we share as inhabitants of this planet is a heritage that transcends both time and national boundaries. To ask of what consequence might be the loss of any of those treasures is to suggest again the wisdom of that old observation about he who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Because our lives would be much poorer with their passing. Because we thrive and prosper by living amidst diversity.”

Additional Resources

Learn from NPS Resource Specialists

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