NPS Fundamentals Essentials: Visitor and Resource Protection


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.


National Park Service (NPS) Visitor and Resource Protection (VRP) is made up of many NPS operations including: fire management, law enforcement, emergency services, commercial and special park uses, and fee management. The VRP branch protects parks from people, people from parks, and people from people. Many facets of the VRP branch works to protect the safety and health of our visitors, partners, NPS Staff, and natural and cultural resources.

This Essential refers to several NPS management documents. These documents assist managers in making day-to-day decisions and are the driving force behind many NPS operations. The primary source of guidance is the 2006 edition of Management Policies, which is also the foremost element of the service’s directives system. Other elements include Director’s Orders (DO), Handbooks and Reference Manuals (RM) and the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Law Enforcement

The law enforcement program is an important tool in carrying out the NPS mission. The objectives of the NPS law enforcement program are (1) the prevention of criminal activities through resource education, public safety efforts, and deterrence; and (2) the detection and investigation of criminal activity and the apprehension and successful prosecution of criminal violators. In carrying out the law enforcement program, the service will make reasonable efforts to protect the natural and cultural resources entrusted to its care and to provide for the protection, safety, and security of park visitors, employees, concessioners, and public and private property.  – 2006 NPS Management Policies

Public law has authorized the Secretary of Interior (and the NPS) to engage in various emergency services as required to carry out the NPS mandate. It is the intent of Congress and the NPS that law enforcement continue to be conducted as part of a broad array of visitor and resource protection duties.

We should expect our men and women in law enforcement to be well-trained, equipped and prepared to do their jobs effectively and safely. The NPS has a great responsibility in hiring, training, and supervising these men and women.

Fee Management

VRP and Fee Management work together, since they both involve visitor compliance. Visitor Use Assistants (VUAs) working in an entrance station, provide the first visitor contact when entrance fees are collected. Visitors often return to report violations, safety hazards, and injuries. VUAs work closely with law enforcement to maintain effective and efficient operations..

In many park sites, VRP supports the fee program by assisting with the safety and security of fee staff and deposits made to financial institutions.

Park Ranger collect fees from vehicle at entrance station
Entrance Station, Yellowstone National Park

Emergency Medical Services (EMS)

“The service will make reasonable efforts to provide appropriate emergency medical services for persons who become ill or injured.”  – 2006 NPS Management Policies

EMS varies greatly from park to park. In urban park sites, there may be relationships with city or county EMS to provide emergency response. In more remote park settings, it’s likely that parks will have their own EMS staff and equipment to provide for a faster response. Park staff, at all levels, are encouraged to seek training in CPR and AED (automated external defibrillator). Staff that performs EMS as part of their position description may require more advanced EMS skills and training.

Regardless of training, every NPS employee has the ability and responsibility to activate the EMS system by recognizing the need for medical attention and calling for help.

Search and Rescue (SAR)

“The saving of human life will take precedence over all other management actions as the Park Service strives to protect human life and provide injury-free visits.”  – 2006 NPS Management Policies

Any one of us may be drawn into a search and rescue response as the reporting party, the first point of contact, or some other role. A SAR operation can be stressful for park staff and affect other park operations as they deal with safety concerns, media, and family members.

While a visitor may feel being lost, tired, or ill constitutes an emergency, it may or may not translate to an emergency response from the NPS.

Helicopter evacution of injuried person below the rim at Grand Canyon National Park
Helicopter Rescue, Grand Canyon National Park

Basic tenets of search and rescue:

  • Do not put rescuers in unnecessary jeopardy
  • Do not create a situation where you have to rescue the rescuers
  • Make reasonable efforts
  • SAR response may be provided by the NPS or outside expertise
  • NPS will not charge for rescues (exceptions – courts may order restitution, private contractors may bill for rescue services)
  • Operations will be conducted using Incident Command System (ICS)

Wildland Fire Management

The NPS Wildland Fire Program mission is to protect lives, property, and resources while restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems. The NPS is a leader in the wildland fire community. It is the NPS’ responsibility to manage the land in a manner that will provide sustainable environmental and social benefits for current and future generations. The management of wildland fire has been part of the core mission of the NPS since its inception. We understand the historic role of wildland fire on public lands and our duty in the protection of the public and communities. The NPS has long been a leader in fire communication among federal agencies. The NPS has a rich history of engaging the public in learning about nature and ecology through our interpretive education and public outreach program and other means.

Structural Fire Management

Everyone in a park can contribute in the area of structural fire prevention and detection by knowing the locations of fire extinguishers and being trained on how to use them properly.

Each park should have a structural fire program that should include:

  • A comprehensive, interdisciplinary effort to protect resources/people
  • Fire prevention, protection, suppression as primary considerations
  • A Structural Fire Assessment
  • A Structural Fire Plan
Motorhome engulfed in flames while firefighter uses hose to extinguish
Motorhome Fire, Grand Canyon National Park

Incident Command System (ICS)

NPS emergency operations will be conducted using the Incident Command System of the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS). The Unified Command System (within the Incident Command System) will be used when other agencies are involved. Each park superintendent will develop and maintain an emergency operations plan to ensure an effective response to all types of emergencies that can be reasonably anticipated.”  – 2006 NPS Management Policies

The Incident Command System (ICS) used with NIIMS tie together EMS, LE, SAR, Fire and other emergency response services. The ICS and NIMS are used by all federal agencies and many state and local governments as well to direct and manage emergency response. The use of an ICS enables a coordinated response among various jurisdictions and functional agencies, both public and private.

The ICS establishes common processes for planning and managing resources. It allows for the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure.

Special Park Uses, Commercial Use Authorizations and Concessions

VRP generally manages the permissions and authorizations of groups and individuals to conduct business and hold special events in national parks. Each type of park use is managed and permitted individually.

Special Park Uses

Special park use is defined as an activity that takes place in a park area, and that provides a benefit to an individual, group, or organization rather than the public at large; requires written authorization and some degree of management control from the Service in order to protect park resources and the public interest; is not prohibited by law or regulation; is not initiated, sponsored, or conducted by the Service; and is not managed under a concession contract a recreation activity for which the NPS charges a fee, or a lease.  – 2006 NPS Management Policies

Special use permits will not be issued, if in the opinion of the Superintendent, the special event will:

  • Cause injury or damage to park resources.
  • Be contrary to the purposes for which the park was established, or unreasonably impair the atmosphere of peace and tranquility maintained in wilderness, natural, or cultural locations within the monument.
  • Unreasonably interfere with the interpretive, visitor service, or other program activities, or with administrative activities.
  • Substantially impair the operation of public facilities or services of NPS concessioner or contractors.
  • Present a clear and present danger to public health and safety.
  • Result in significant conflict with other existing uses.

Commercial Park Uses

Commercial use authorizations (CUAs) may be issued pursuant to section 418 of the National Park Service Concessions Management Improvement Act of 1998 (16 USC 5966). A Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) may be obtained from the National Park Service to authorize companies or individuals to conduct business in National Park Sites on an annual basis. A CUA provides a group a non-exclusive license to offer services to park visitors.  – 2006 NPS Management Polices

An organization is considered a business if it provides goods, services, activities, or other things to the public using NPS lands. If the business receives any form of compensation for the services provided, it is conducting a commercial activity. The NPS definition of a business or commercial organization does not distinguish between commercial and non-profit organizations.

CUA holders have their base of operation outside the park. All the commercial aspects of the activity must occur outside of NPS lands. This includes marketing, advertising, use of permanent or temporary structures, and negotiation with customers. Compensation or payment for services, (this includes compensation through tips) may not occur on NPS lands.

Concessions Contracts

Concession operations are subject to the provisions of the National Park Service Concessions Management Improvement Act of 1998; NPS regulations published at 36 CFR Part 51; NPS Management Policies; Director’s Order #48A.  – 2006 NPS Management Polices

The Commercial Services Program of the National Park Service administers approximately 560 concession contracts that gross about $1 billion annually. Concessioners employ over 25,000 hospitality industry people during peak seasons; providing services ranging from food and lodging, to white water rafting adventures. The NPS Commercial Services Program administers these contracts, including monitoring the performance of concessioners.

Concessioners fill a vital role in helping the National Park Service carry out its mission. They are allowed to offer certain specific goods and services to park visitors, which are not provided by NPS personnel. By welcoming the private sector as a partner in park operations, the NPS broadens the economic base of the region in general and the communities surrounding the parks in particular.

Issues and Challenges

Visitor and Resource Protection professionals face the daily challenge of balancing a wide array and diversity of duties. They are responsible for balancing the protection of visitors and natural and cultural resources and monitoring the growth of special park uses, concessions and commercial uses where reasonable as these uses become more complex.

Additional Resources


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