We live in an age of disruption. “Disruptive innovations,” typically digital in nature, create new markets and value chains that grow and overthrow market leaders and other incumbents. The founders of our National Park System and National Park Service (NPS) had little sense of such disruption and, judging by how our park ideals have fared in recent decades, too little sense of how disruption works in nature, either. The parks embody a set of ideals and, as one of the most noted inventions of America’s democracy, sit in uneasy tension with the constant disruption of nature’s composition and function. The Organic Act of 1916 mandates that the parks be maintained unimpaired for future generations, but we have long suspected that climate disruption will mean even more risk to the park system’s “crown jewels.”

Maintaining fragments of our natural world and national heritage undiminished for future generations is becoming a devilishly complex task. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) could play a vital role in steering the cultural and institutional inertia of NPS while at the same time addressing two challenging statutory mandates. Given their natures, these two mandates promise to continue intertwining with each other and producing yet unknown legal duties for NPS. Fulfilling them will require NPS to get ahead of the informational and organizational challenges they bring, which may mean thinking like the disruptive innovator. NPS management must take the lead in spurring and supporting more experiments. If they do not, the informational and organizational burdens swelling behind the non-impairment/NEPA trends promise to fill its second century with distress.