06 Purposes of the National Parks and Responsibilities of the National Park Service

National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on Research in the National Parks: The Robbins Report

Purposes of the National Parks and Responsibilities of the National Park Service

Before an activity can be administered or managed, before its problems can be defined, investigated or solved, one must be completely clear about the objectives and one must have a fairly good idea of what, in a given set of circumstances, the changes in those circumstances are likely to be in order that they may be anticipated. Unless the purposes and objectives of the national parks are determined and clearly and generally understood, the management of the plants, the animals, the habitat in which they live and of man in his impact upon them is likely to be ineffective, and may even be harmful and destructive.

What are the objectives or purposes of the national parks? Who has the responsibility for seeing to it that the objectives are attained?

Purposes originally understood for each park are contained in the legislative act establishing it. The National Park Service has the responsibility for administering the national parks, and receives its overall authority from the Act of Congress, approved August 25, 1916, by which the National Park Service was established in the Department of Interior. The latter Act states:

“The Service thus established [the National Park Service] shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” 

By the legislation referred to above the National Park Service is confronted with the responsibility of administering, in accordance with the provisions of the various acts, areas which vary widely in size, in states of preservation, in geology, biology, and climate and in actual or potential impact of man and his activities within and without the park.

In some instances, by specific legislation, administrative orders or agreements, uses are authorized which may be considered as not conforming to the purpose of the National Park System as defined in the Act of 1916. 

There are differences of public opinion on the major purposes of the national parks. One extreme wishes the national parks to be developed as neon-lighted vacation resorts; another wishes them left as nearly primeval as possible. Should a major aim of the national parks be the attraction of more and more visitors, by adding more paved roads, more resort buildings, larger and more numerous trailer camps, greater mass recreational facilities, golf courses, ski lifts, motorboat marinas, tennis courts, and amusement concessions?

The unique character of the national parks, the existence and extensive development of other areas specifically designed and administered for mass recreation and the injunction that the national parks are to be “conserved unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” dictate that the preeminent objectives and purposes of the national parks are and should be their preservation and conservation with due consideration for the enjoyment by their owners, the people of the United States, of the aesthetic, spiritual, inspirational, educational, and scientific values which are inherent in natural wonders and nature’s creatures. The Committee believes that the purpose of the national parks should be the preservation of nature, the maintenance of natural conditions, the avoidance of artificiality, with such provisions for the accommodation of visitors as will neither destroy nor deteriorate the natural features which should be preserved for the enjoyment of future visitors who may come to the parks.

Differences of opinion exist on the place of management in the administration of the national parks. On the one hand it is said that management or artificial control of the native biological resources of a park is contrary to the concept of preservation and conservation; that the plants and animals in a national park should be left undisturbed to multiply, survive or disappear as natural forces might dictate. On the other hand, it is said that no national park is large enough or adequately isolated to be, in fact, a self-regulatory ecological unit, but is subject to direct and indirect modification by activities (visitors, for example) within the park, and by the effect of changes in the area surrounding a park. According to this point of view, limitation of herds of elk, supervision of visitors to a park, control of water levels, proper location of roads and other facilities, controlled burning, even the decision to leave untouched some areas in a park, are necessary functions of management if a park is to survive in anything like the condition which meets the purpose for which it was established. This Committee believes that management [4] of national parks is unavoidable.

The statement in Management of National Parks and Equivalent Areas formulated by a committee of the First World Conference on National Parks that was convened in Seattle in July 1962, serves to illustrate the concept:

“Management is defined as any activity directed toward achieving or maintaining a given condition in plant and/or animal populations and/or habitats in accordance with the conservation plan for the area. A prior definition of the purposes and objectives of each park is assumed. Management may involve active manipulation of the plant and animal communities, or protection from modification or external influences.”

It is not enough, however, to urge that the purposes of the national parks should be the preservation of nature, the maintenance of natural conditions. Any administrator honestly attempting to satisfy this recommendation is immediately faced with the questions — What state of nature? What natural conditions? The biological nature, the condition of a national park when first established, with rare exceptions, has not persisted; factors within and without the limits of a park have modified it, some times profoundly. Should the management of a national park endeavor to restore a park to its primitive condition, maintain it as now, or aim for some state in between?

In a report on Wildlife Management in the National Parks, prepared by a committee appointed by the Secretary, it is recommended that the goal of park management in the United States should be to maintain, or where necessary, restore the biotic associations as nearly as possible to the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by white man. This wildlife management report recognizes that the implications of this “seemingly simple aspiration are stupendous,” and that most, if not all, national parks as they now exist have a complex biological history ranging from indiscriminate exploitation by logging, burning, livestock grazing, and hunting, through artificial protection from fires, insect pests, predators, and changes in normal fluctuation of water levels. Exotic vertebrates, insects and plants, as well as plant diseases and pests have been inadvertently introduced; and some endemic species of living things are even now extinct. The activities of people within and in the vicinity of a national park have profoundly modified some of them.

The present Committee views with sympathy the ideal of making a national park “a vignette of primitive America,” so eloquently presented in the wildlife report mentioned, and appreciates as keenly as the authors of the report the difficulties in even approaching such an ideal. In some instances because of the paucity of historical records it would be impossible to determine what the condition of a particular park was when white man first saw it. Changes, some irreversible, and current activities, in some instances impossible to control, in areas surrounding a park, as well as the impact of increasing numbers of visitors suggest that the ideal, though admirable, may not be fully attainable; yet it is desirable to move in that direction.

The Committee recognizes that national parks are not pictures on the wall; they are not museum exhibits in glass cases; they are dynamic biological complexes with self-generating changes. To attempt to maintain them in any fixed condition, past, present, or future, would not only be futile but contrary to nature. Each park should be regarded as a system of interrelated plants, animals and habitat (an ecosystem) in which evolutionary processes will occur under such human control and guidance as seems necessary to preserve its unique features. Naturalness, the avoidance of artificiality, should be the rule.

This Committee suggests that each park be dealt with individually and that the National Park Service, in consultation with appropriate advisors, define the objectives and purposes for each park. These will vary from park to park and, in general, should be those for which the park was originally established, giving special consideration to the specific natural phenomena (biological, geological, archeological) which instigated its establishment.

In some instances the original particular objective of a national park is specific, and comparatively simple to define, though it may be difficult to accomplish. For example, the preservation of the organ pipe cactus, of ancient cliff dwellings, of a limited but unique group of living organisms, of colorful and spectacular erosion forms. For other parks the objectives are numerous and complex. They involve not only several special natural phenomena but the totality of the habitat and its biology, the ecosystem. McKinley, as a great mountain, cannot be separated from the tundra which surrounds it. The giant sequoia is unique, but it would lose part of its value if divorced from the natural setting in which it exists.

Objectives, insofar as possible, should be clear and definite, not diffuse; e.g., the best possible spectacle of wildlife in a natural setting, the restoration of a natural meadow, the introduction of bighorn sheep into an area from which they have disappeared, the protection (restoration) of the water table, control of surplus destructive elk, deer, or other hoofed animals. In setting up such specific objectives, it must be recognized, however, that each is a part of a whole and cannot be considered as an isolated phenomenon.

Some parks, because of their size, their remoteness or isolation contain areas which approach primitive conditions. Every effort should be made to preserve these areas, not only because they may be “vignettes of primitive America,” but because of their scientific value as outdoor natural laboratories in which the working of natural laws can be observed to greater advantage than anywhere else and because each such area is a refuge of plant and animal species — a nature’s biological bank in which a biological reserve can exist and from which species may spread to adjacent areas. It should be recognized, however, that with time these areas, too, change.

Such natural undisturbed areas could be preserved for research and park interpretation by developing and applying the concept of zoning  which would also dictate the type of use permitted in each zone. Parks and/or areas within a park might be zoned as follows:

  1. Natural undisturbed areas. These are undisturbed ecological areas into which a visitor would be conducted or permitted by special permission. They would serve as examples and standards of natural conditions characteristic of the particular area as well as refuges for wild plants and animals.
  2. Naturalistic areas. These are regions which are wild (natural) in appearance but affected to some degree by use or by outside influences. They would be maintained to give, so far as possible, “a reasonable illusion of primitive America.”
  3. Public use areas.
  4. Park Service facility areas.

The underlining is that of the Committee.

Such nonconforming uses include: Borax mining in Death Valley; prospecting and mining in McKinley Park; hunting in McKinley Park in connection with prospecting; copper mining in Organ Pipe Cactus; grazing rights in various parks; TV relay stations in Shenandoah National Park and Death Valley; use of part of White Sands, New Mexico, National Monument as an Air Force impact area for missile testing.

The Committee means by mass recreational facilities those which are primarily for amusement or which require elaborate construction or extensive and/or artificial modification of the natural features of a park.

Management as applied to the national parks in the United States is understood to be primarily for the purpose of or to lead in the direction of preservation or restoration of natural conditions.

The term “zoning” as applied here to existing national parks in the United States refers to areas rather than belts.

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