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Effort to create Delaware River National Park Grinds On
By Chris Mele | January 3, 2024For Delaware Currents
Since steps were first announced in 2021 to create a national park straddling the Delaware River in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the effort has become a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, with supporters and opponents unprepared to concede defeat — or declare victory.
Particularly in the past 18 months, the campaigns for and against have been marked by public relations volleys, a flurry of correspondences and some unexpected twists.
Let’s get caught up, shall we?
What is the national park proposal?
An earlier plan called for the federal lands to triple in size to more than 200,000 acres by connecting existing state preserve lands in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and unifying them under federal management.
Under a revised plan, no state lands would be involved and the only expansion to the 70,000-acre footprint of the recreation area would come from property owners willing to sell, according to proponents.
Opponents have said that local infrastructure and fire and medical services would be strained and that the proposal is lacking details about potential changes in fees and boundaries.
In an October letter, three New Jersey state lawmakers raised concerns about how a national park would affect hunting, trapping and fishing and what impact a park would have on parking and river access.
What is the current state of the proposal?
For now, it’s just that — a proposal.
You’ve heard the figure of speech about an outcome that “will take an act of Congress,” an allusion to a burdensome process that will require time and patience? That is exactly what this national park plan faces. It will literally require Congressional approval (and then the president’s signature) to make it happen.
Is there support in Congress for a national park?
The members of Congress whose districts overlap with the borders of the recreation area have come out in opposition to the plan.
Additionally, officials at multiple levels of government have taken positions against the plan. (No National Park, which has been leading the opposition, has a detailed inventory of resolutions.)
Stephanie Wein, the clean water and conservation advocate for PennEnvironment, one of the groups that has signed on as a supporter of the park plan, said federal lawmakers have “heard from a small segment of squeaky wheels” in opposition to the park and that gaining backing is a matter of telling the story of its benefits and encouraging supporters to make their voices heard.
That local members of Congress are opposed to the national park is not surprising, said John Donahue, a former superintendent of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and a chief architect of the national park plan.
He said elected leaders reflect the opinions of the local population but predicted that as local opinions change, so too will the positions of those in Congress.
“We just keep moving forward,” he said.
As a practical matter, though, the lack of congressional support makes this plan a steep climb.
Ed Stierli, Mid-Atlantic regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association, said his group has not taken a position on the national park proposal because, at this point, there’s no legislation to back it.
“It’s just kind of a thought,” he said, adding, “If you don’t have a champion for that in Congress, it’s just not feasible for that to happen.”
What’s the timetable for a national park designation?
Backers see the process as a marathon, not a sprint, and say there is no set schedule.
In the words of Donahue: “As soon as possible and as long as it takes.”
He alluded to Sisyphus, the mythological character condemned by the Greek gods to perpetually push a boulder up a hillside and whose legend has become associated with endless, arduous tasks.
Despite the lack of Congressional support and vocal opposition and resolutions against the park proposal, Donahue said he was undeterred.
“In 38 years with the U.S. government, every single project that I was ever able to accomplish I was told it would never happen,” he said.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park was the only national recreation area to ever become a full-fledged national park, according to the National Park Service.
Could a national park happen overnight?
In a sense, yes.
“All it takes is some congressman in Wyoming or Montana to say, ‘Golly, gee. Let’s have another national park. Let’s push it through,’” said Sandy Hull, an outspoken opponent and leader of No National Park. “All it takes is one person to slide this sucker through.”
It’s possible for a redesignation to happen, not necessarily as a stand-alone piece of legislation, but as part of a larger spending bill.
Indeed, there are precedents.
Consider, for example, Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, which, according to the National Park Service, is the only national recreation area to ever become a national park.
The legislation in 2000 was championed by an Ohio congressman, Ralph Regula, simply by having language inserted into an appropriations bill, according to Pamela Barnes, a park spokeswoman.
The redesignation was a mere 164 words woven into the fabric of a 50,544-word appropriations bill.
While the creation of the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in 1974 was met with opposition, the redesignation to a full-fledged park “was relatively quiet, basically a stroke of the pen,” Barnes said.
Similarly, the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia was redesignated in 2000 as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve after a handful of federal lawmakers backed the plan and included the new park in an appropriations bill.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park features an array of trails and waterways.
Why pursue a national park in the first place?
Proponents offer an array of reasons.
“Doesn’t Pennsylvania deserve a national park? Doesn’t the Mid-Atlantic deserve a national park?” she added.
A national park would bring with it the highest levels of protection, confer bragging rights, induce local economic benefits and likely draw even more than the 4.3 million visitors it had in 2022, backers say.
The recreation area is within a day’s drive of millions of people who already visit at the levels of marquee national parks, so the Delaware River site should get the resources to match, Wein said.
But does national park status necessarily mean more funding and visitors?
The Our Park site acknowledges that there is no automatic promise of more federal funding, though it suggests that national park status would make budget increases more likely.
“Redesignation as a National Park and Preserve will best position the park to receive more staff, more funding and more improvements to the roads, parking, beaches and other recreational infrastructure,” it says. “No change in designation guarantees there will be no infrastructure improvements; redesignation provides a path for these improvements.”
Stierli, of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the National Park Service is budgeted a certain amount of money and then allocates it based on what it costs to manage a particular site’s resources.
“The redesignation or changing the name of a park, it does not equate to more funding,” he said. “It’s just not true.”
Fundamentally, it’s just not the way Congress works, he added.
As for increased visitors, comparisons made by proponents to the newly designated New River Gorge National Park and Preserve are misplaced, he said.
While the park did report an increase in visitors since its renaming — to 1.6 million from 1 million annually — the park designation happened at the height of the Covid pandemic, when people were flocking to parks and the outdoors.
The redesignation was also part of a larger strategy by West Virginia and local leaders to promote the outdoor economy and boost economic revitalization in the New River Gorge region.
The marketing for parks in West Virginia has been immense. In the Washington, D.C., area “you cannot go anywhere without seeing” or hearing advertisements for West Virginia parks, including New River Gorge, he said.
As for more federal funding?
“There has been no base funding increase to the park as a result of the redesignation,” said Eve West, the park’s chief of interpretation and visitor services.
What is the state of the opposition?
The proposal has produced some strange bedfellows.
Donahue said the Riverkeeper’s opposition was rooted in a misreading of the pro-park group’s efforts. Referring to the Riverkeeper, Maya van Rossum, he said, “She makes the national park sound like Disneyland.”
And the Sierra Club chapter in New Jersey?
He said a change of leadership there put it out of alignment with pro-park efforts, so his group dropped the club from its list of supporters before the chapter withdrew its backing.
Hull said some people “think that national parks are the holy grail of the National Park Service” but she sees it as ushering in new problems or exacerbating old ones.
Both sides have accused the other of misrepresenting their positions or contorting details of the plan. Donahue said his efforts have been rooted in facts and research while opponents have been trafficking in “fear-mongering, feelings and opinions.”
Hull said her group will remain vigilant. “I will tell you the opposition to this project is stronger than ever,” she said.
As for whether the Delaware River National Park proposal was merely on life support, Hull said: “For me, it’s very much alive. I liken it to walking through a spooky fun house waiting for the worst scare at any moment.”
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