National parks are created in areas of specific outstanding natural value, in order to preserve the biodiversity, resources, formations and elements of inanimate nature and landscape values, to restore the proper state of the resources and natural elements and reconstruct any distorted natural habitats and also the habitats of plants, animals or fungi. The main objective of a national park is the conservation of nature which includes the protection of the environment and the specific characteristics of the landscape of each region within its territory in accordance with the "Laws for the Protection of Nature" which can be characterised by specific natural, scientific, social, cultural and educational qualities. It must also meet its territorial requirements, namely its area should not be less than 1000 hectares and the whole region must be protected. National Parks can only be visited with a guide and along carefully designated trails. These tours are usually paid.
A national park is usually created for three reasons, to preserve areas which have not yet been destroyed, to improve the existing environment and to restore damaged habitats. Thus, this protection does not just relate to flora and fauna but also inanimate elements like interesting rock formations, caves, water reservoirs or their sources.
Each park has its own board of executives which is headed by a director, who manages the park with the participation and support of the Park Council. After the war, the Polish national parks were subject to the National Board of the National Parks but in 2004, as a result of new regulatory overseeing responsibilities, their running was taken over by the Department of Forestry and Conservation of Nature and Landscapes, part of Ministry of the Environment, which in turn was replaced by the Independent Department of Natura 2000 Areas and National Parks in 2007. Since 2008, the National Parks fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Nature Conservation at the Ministry of the Environment. National Parks are funded from the central budget as they are the source of a number of studies and are implemented in educational programmes. National Parks are one of the most interesting locations that can fascinate with their rich vegetation, different from younger vegetation occurring elsewhere or amaze with the variety of their rock formations. The most famous Polish national parks are, of course, the Bialowieza National Park because of its colony bison and the Tatra National Park, with its beautiful mountain ponds and the highest Polish mountains.
Certain rules of behaviour apply in national parks. The hosts are the wildlife and tourists should adapt to the environment. Visitors can only use marked trails and it is forbidden to damage or pick plants, including any fruits of the forest, catch or frighten the animals or collect and remove rocks and minerals. Cyclists should ride slowly on their bike and only on designated cycle trails. Winter sports can only be carried out on designated areas in the mountains and dogs are not permitted in any Polish National Park. Visitors should be as quiet as possible in the park and refrain from screaming or listening to the radio. There is a total ban on camping and lighting fires outside designated areas.
Till today, 23 national parks have been created in Poland, covering a total area of 316,748 hectares which is about 1% of the territory of the country. The smallest is Ojcow National Park, about 2,146 hectares and the largest is the Biebrza National Park with an area of 59,223 hectares. Eight of the national parks have been designated World Biosphere Reserves and include the Babiogorski National Park, the Bialowieza National Park, the Bieszczady National Park, the Kampinos National Park, the Karkonosze National Park, the Poleski National Park, the Slowinski National Park and the Tatra National Park, and the seven that belong to the Ramsar Convention that protects wetlands which are so important for birds are the Biebrza National Park, the Narew National Park, the Karkonosze National Park, the Poleski National Park, the “Warta Estuary" National Park, the Slowinski National Park and the Wigry National Park. National Parks in Poland have woodland character as almost 62% of their area is covered by forests. One exception is the “Warta Estuary" National Park where forests cover only about 1% of the Park and primarily the open grassland habitat and a dense network of canals and backwaters are protected here which are an important refuge for waterfowl in Poland. The forest cover in the Narew National Park accounts for 3% of its area and the most important natural feature here is the unique character of the Narew River and its tributaries which, within the limits of the park, run through multiple channels. In other parks, the forest cover ranges from 26% in the Biebrza National Park to 96% in the Roztoczanski and Mazurski National Parks.
Different areas of the parks fall under different degrees of protection. Strict protected areas, which excludes any human interference, make up about 21% of the total area of parks while partial protection areas, where protective measures are used to maintain or restore the correct state of the natural resources, make up 60% of the parks. The remaining 19% are occupied by the park infrastructure, agricultural land and areas of private property with protected landscapes. The parks are usually surrounded by areas called buffer zones which are areas of strict fishing control and limited tourist access.
Within the national parks, 317 varieties of plants have been identified, including 76 varieties of forest and non-forest shrubs and 241, from a total of 410 known plant varieties in the country. Among them there are 20 varieties of endemic plants, unique to a given location or region, and about 180 varieties of protected plant species. Representatives of every species of Polish mammal can be seen in the parks, about 250 species of birds and several thousand species of insects as well as numerous representatives of reptiles, amphibians and fish.
129 nature trails and about 3,243km of hiking trails have been made available for tourists and almost all the national parks operate museums or educational informational centres. About 11 million people each year visit Polish national parks.