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Park Planning Program

Planning Framework

Each unit of the national park system is required to have a formal statement of its core mission that provides basic guidance for all planning and management decisions, the park foundation document. A foundation document establishes the basis for all future planning and is the core element of each park's planning portfolio. The park planning portfolio is the assemblage of planning documents that guide decision making and satisfy law and policy. A park’s planning portfolio, which extends from the foundation document to site-specific resource and visitor use management plans, creates a logical, trackable guide for future park management actions. Use of the portfolio structure for delivering planning products introduces greater flexibility for park managers, supporting formal planning efforts for some issues while acknowledging that existing plans and guidance are adequate for other issues. A park’s planning portfolio can be visualized as a loose-leaf binder, in which particular planning elements can be updated, and new elements added, without revising the entire body of work.

Information on the types of plans that may be included in the park planning portfolio can be found in the Planning Catalog (2020). For information on active planning projects across the NPS legacy regions, click on the following links: Alaska Region, Intermountain Region, Midwest Region, National Capital Region, Northeast Region, Pacific West Region, Southeast Region.

Graphic that shows how a foundation document informs a dynamic planning portfolio for a park unit, as discussed above.

Offices and Programs

Multiple offices and programs assist with, manage, and carry out elements of the NPS Park Planning program. The Park Planning and Special Studies Division in the national office provides overall direction for park planning.

Each of the seven NPS regional offices has a planning division that supports the NPS Park Planning program. The regional planning divisions are responsible for plan production and technical assistance to parks. To contact a regional planning office, send an email to npsparkplanning@nps.gov and indicate in the body of your message which region you are trying to contact – Alaska Region, Intermountain Region, Midwest Region, National Capital Region, Northeast Region, Pacific West Region, Southeast Region.

The Denver Service Center Planning Division supports the NPS Park Planning program by providing plan production and planning services to parks and regional offices. To contact the Denver Service Center Planning Division, send an email to npsparkplanning@nps.gov and write "Denver Service Center" in the body of your message.

In addition to these offices, which are specifically charged to conduct planning, many other NPS programs are involved in park planning projects and provide capacity throughout the agency to address park planning needs.

Other offices and programs that conduct planning:

The Commercial Services Program is responsible for ensuring access to quality visitor services and activities that provide for visitor use and enjoyment in national parks. Commercial services planning provides a logical decision-making process to determine which types of activities and services will be provided by qualified businesses, and determines the appropriate tools (concession contract, commercial use authorization, and/or lease) to manage those activities and services.

The Denver Service Center Transportation Division manages implementation plans for transportation projects in collaboration with parks and partners to ensure that park resources are protected.

The Environmental Quality Division assists with management planning by providing guidance, technical assistance, training, and advice on the National Environmental Policy Act to NPS staff to protect park resources and values for the enjoyment of future generations.

The Harpers Ferry Center Interpretive Planning Program assists by helping parks address visitor experiences in parks, including interpretation, orientation, education, safety, and resource protection. Interpretive planning is a goal-driven process that recommends strategies to help parks achieve their mission, protect their resources, and provide the best service to visitors.

The Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program supports community-led natural resource conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the nation. The program partners with community groups, nonprofits, tribes, and state and local governments to design trails and parks, conserve and improve access to rivers, protect special places, and to create recreation opportunities.

Planning Guidance Documents

Planning Catalog

In the NPS Planning Catalog (2020) (formerly known as the Planning Catalog of Products & Services), you will find descriptions of products and services that reflect a range of park planning work undertaken throughout the National Park Service. There are a variety of national programs/offices represented in the catalog, including the Park Planning and Special Studies Division (PPSS), Park Facilities Maintenance Division, Denver Service Center – Planning Division, Business Management, Cultural Resources, Natural Resources, Interpretation, Partnerships, Sustainability, Visitor Use and Experience, and Wilderness. The description of each product or service includes its purpose, description, time frame, examples, potential funding sources, and a link to key contacts. To access a copy of the Planning Catalog, click here.

River Access Planning Guide

The River Access Planning Guide is an online and downloadable resource for planning river access. The step by step process guides planning for river access with recreation users in mind. This guide can assist the challenging task of providing for a variety of uses while protecting natural resources in rivers and other waterways. The guide’s approach provides a framework for meeting the needs of people seeking to enjoy river recreation on, off, and in the water. To access a copy of the planning guide, click here.

The River Access Planning Guide represents a partnership between the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, American Whitewater, and the River Management Society whose working group engaged in a collaborative dialogue about river access topics and contributed to its development, refinement, and production.

Trails System Planning Guidebook

The Trail System Planning Guidebook emphasizes big-picture thinking for a comprehensive network of trails, rather than a focus on construction and maintenance of individual trails. The guidebook discusses fundamentals of trail system design and management, the trails planning process, and on-the-ground facilitation and implementation techniques. The guidebook is not NPS policy, but rather represents recommendations developed for consistent best practices based on the current state of knowledge. To access a copy of the planning guidebook, click here.