Purpose and Goals for Vital Signs Monitoring in the National Park Service
In 1999, the National Park Service (NPS) launched the Natural Resource Challenge, a 5-year program designed to strengthen natural resource management in the nation's national parks. The single biggest undertaking of the Challenge was to expand ongoing park inventory and monitoring efforts into an ambitious comprehensive nationwide program. The Servicewide Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) program was introduced to 270 parks identified as having significant natural resources. Under this program, parks have been organized into 32 networks to conduct long-term vital signs monitoring. Each network links parks that share geographic and natural resource characteristics, allowing for improved efficiency and the sharing of staff and resources. A map of the vital signs networks can be found at the following I&M website: http://science.nature.nps.gov/im/monitor/networks2.htm.
The purposes of the Vital Signs Monitoring Program in the National Park Service relates directly to the purposes of the national park system: "To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therin 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" (NPS Organic Act of 1916). Knowing the condition of natural resources in national parks is fundamental to the network's ability to manage park resources. National park managers across the country are confronted with increasingly complex and challenging issues that require a broad-based understanding of the status and trends of park resources as a basis for making decisions and working with other agencies and the public for the benefit of park resources.
The challenge of protecting and managing a park's natural resources requires a multi-agency, ecosystem approach because most parks are open systems, with threats such as air and water pollution, or invasive species, originating outside of the park's boundaries. An ecosystem approach is further needed because no single spatial or temporal scale is appropriate for all system components and processes; the appropriate scale for understanding and effectively managing a resource might be at the population, species, community, or landscape level, and in some cases may require a regional, national or international effort to understand and manage the resource. For years, managers and scientists have sought for a way to characterize and determine trends in the condition of parks and other protected areas to assess the efficacy of management practices and restoration efforts and to provide early warning of impending threats. National parks are part of larger ecosystems and must be managed in that context.
Monitoring data helps to define the typical limits of variation in park resources and when put into a landscape context monitoring provides the basis for determining meaningful change in ecosystems. Monitoring results may also be used to determine what constitutes impairment and to identify the need to initiate or change management practices. The intent of the NPS monitoring program is to track a subset of valued resources and indicators of overall ecosystem condition, known as "vital signs." This subset of resources and processes is part of the total suite of natural resources that park managers are directed to preserve: including water, air, geological resources, plants, and animals, and the various ecological, biological, and physical processes that act on these resources. The broad-based, scientifically sound information obtained through natural resource monitoring will have multiple applications for management decision-making, research, education, and promoting public understanding of park resources.
The Service-wide goals for vital signs monitoring in the National Park Service are:
- Determine status and trends in selected indicators of the condition of park ecosystems to allow managers to make better informed decisions and to work more effectively with other agencies and individuals for the benefit of park resources.
- Provide early warning of abnormal conditions and impairment of selected resources to help develop effective mitigation measures and reduce costs of management.
- Provide data to better understand the dynamic nature and condition of park ecosystems and to provide reference points for comparisons with other, altered environments.
- Provide data to meet certain legal and congressional mandates related to natural resource protection and visitor enjoyment.
- Provide a means of measuring progress towards performance goals.