NPS Organic Act

Cave Cricket in Mammoth Cave National Park. Courtesy of NPS.

NRS | Federal Lands | Recreation and Preservation | Creation of the NPS

In order to manage and preserve the nation’s national park lands, Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916. 16 U.S.C. §1. The Organic Act established the National Park Service as an agency under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior with the stated purpose of promoting use of national park lands while protecting them from impairment. Specifically, the Act declares that the National Park Service has a dual mission, both to conserve park resources and provide for their use and enjoyment “in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired” for future generations. 16 U.S.C. §1.

The two most significant amendments to the Organic Act lie in the 1970 National Park System General Authorities Act and the 1978 Redwoods National Park Expansion Act. The General Authorities Act amendment declares that “though distinct in character, [national parks] are united through their interrelated purposes and resources in one National Park System as cumulative expressions of a single national heritage.” National Park System General Authorities Act, Pub. L. 91-383, August 18, 1970, 84 Stat. 825, codified as 16 U.S.C. §1a-1 to 1a-7. This amendment provides that all of the nation’s parks – whether they include natural, cultural or historic resources – are united under the mission, purpose and protection of the Organic Act. The Redwoods Act amendments, which expanded Redwood National Park to address the impacts of resources from logging outside the park, also amended the Organic Act. The amended provision states that all park management activities shall be:

[C]onducted in light of the high public value and integrity of the National Park System and not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which these various areas have been established, except as may have been or shall be directly and specifically provided by Congress.

Pub. L. 95-250, Title I, §101(b), Mar. 27, 1978, 92 Stat. 166 (amending 16 U.S.C. §1a-1). This amendment reaffirms the mandate set forth in the Organic Act and directs the National Park Service to manage park lands in a manner that would not degrade park values.

While the Organic Act directs the National Park Service to regulate park lands pursuant to the standards set forth in the statute, it is silent as to the specifics of park management. S. Utah Wilderness Alliance v. Dabney, 222 F.3d 819, 826 (10th Cir. 2000) (“It is unclear from the statute itself what constitutes impairment, and how both the duration and severity of the impairment are to be evaluated or weighed against the other value of public use of the park.”). Thus, as noted in the often-cited case 1996 case interpreting the Organic Act, Bicycle Trails Council of Marin v. Babbitt, 82 F.3d 1445, 1454 (9th Cir. 1996), “the Park Service has broad discretion in determining which avenues best achieve the Organic Act’s mandate.” In line with this broad discretion, the Organic Act provides the Park Service with the authority to make such regulations as it deems “necessary or proper for the use and management of the parks.” 16 U.S.C. §3. The National Park Service interprets the Organic Act through the development of National Park Service Management Policies.

While the Organic Act unified park management into a national system, national parks also have individual legislation and management systems. Each park is created by an individual legislative act of Congress. In this way, Congress can address specific goals and needs with respect to a particular park. This results in a management system under which park officials must manage each park in accordance with the overarching national system as well as the park’s own legislation and policies. In addition to these congressional acts dealing specifically with the national park system, many other statutes impose requirements that may affect management decisions made by the National Park Service. These statutes include the General Antiquities Act, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).


Updated May 12, 2015

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