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National Park Service: ally or adversary? – the jury is still out

There are many in this Upper Delaware Valley that clearly remember or were part of the intense, heated battle to "Keep the NPS Out of Town." A myriad of concerns prevailed: a distinct lack of trust of the Feds; draft agreements with generalized phrases and weasel-out clauses; suspicion over initial ‘bait’ funding to towns to cover additional costs of providing law enforcement and trash removal; and even the fear that this plan was a ruse or prelude to the eventual condemnation by the Feds of private property.

To my dismay, based on recent actions and policies by the National Park Service, this group of diehard naysayers may have been prophetic.

The 1978 legislation that added the Upper Delaware to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System called for the preparation of a River Management Plan (RMP) and establishment of a locally controlled agency whose primary responsibility was to coordinate and oversee the plan. For the past 30 years, this non-profit organization has been known as the Upper Delaware Council (UDC). The negotiated 1986 River Management Plan reflected the ideas, viewpoints and needs of the people of the Upper Delaware River Corridor to gain federal protection of the river itself while 95% of the property remained in private ownership. The river corridor was to be managed from the bottom up rather than top down.

If one were to read the 1986 RMP and compare it to the current relationships between the NPS, UDC and member townships, it would be difficult to conclude that its good intentions are being allowed to be fulfilled unfettered.

1. The UDC is charged with some 60 hard-core tasks assigned by the RMP. Since 1988, its federal funding has been largely frozen at $300,000 per year. Although NY and PA were expected to provide $100,000 each per year, the UDC has not received one penny from either state. As a matter of financial necessity, positions have been eliminated and programs curtailed. In addition, the NPS has assumed the role of micromanaging the UDC’s use of the $300,000 federal funding to the extent that rental of a water cooler is forbidden. The UDC receives its NPS funding in the form of a reimbursement that has often been delayed for months. The instability the UDC has experienced as a result of this has caused closure threats, exceptional employees to leave, and placed undue burdens on those remaining.

2. The withdrawal of funding for law enforcement and trash removal assistance by the NPS is a great departure from contrary promises made in 1986 by NPS Mid-Atlantic Regional Director James Coleman. The $271,000 that the RMP planned for those local contracts has been drastically reduced in 2018 to $3,200 to assist one town’s police patrols. One of the reasons advanced by the NPS not to reestablish funding for these services is that it would require cuts in other parts of the NPS budget. I find this excuse particularly dubious when the NPS has created and funded two new positions (hydrologist and planner) for the Upper Delaware. Other reasons implied that townships without waterfront commercial activity would not be eligible despite having acreage in the corridor. Or a town would be disqualified if it would not pay its law enforcement personnel a rate that was almost double that of the town’s prevailing wage for services provided only within the corridor .Some towns actually established police departments based on Federal funding, and now are left to fend for themselves to maintain river area coverage.

3. The NPS has recently disallowed the UDC’s awarding of Technical Assistance Grants related to cultural resources to limit grants only to land-use and zoning issues.

4. The NPS has denied UDC proposed initiatives to evaluate cellular service dead zones in the river corridor, install hard-wired call boxes for public emergencies for the health, safety and welfare of residents and visitors, and to update the 1985 Economic Analysis which studied the impact of the RMP on finances of local governments, all for allegedly being outside the council’s purview.

5. There has been a role reversal in recent years. The UDC was intended to be the driving force behind the RMP and to advise the NPS on various management actions. Maintaining equality in the federal-state-local partnership that the RMP envisioned has become a struggle due to constraints placed on the UDC.

If the RMP were written today to reflect current procedures of how and when budgets are funded, who advises whom, and which party decides which interests of the corridor have merit and deserve funding, it would have little similarity to the RMP agreed to in 1986. I strongly doubt that it would have been even entertained, let alone agreed to. There is a movement to amend the RMP with additional land-use guidelines. I think that before the plan is rewritten it needs to first be re-read.

I implore all concerned residents, elected officials, and visitors of the river corridor to call or write their respective state representatives to petition for fulfillment of each state’s 30-year-old intended obligation of $100,000 to fund the UDC.

Contact the NPS also to remind them that a deal is a deal. They need to honor the original assurances that the concerns of the municipalities will be integrated into their annual work plans and that all promised funding will be restored without the recently introduced bureaucratic red tape obstructing it.

The Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River was not designed to be a traditional National Park under exclusive federal control. It was a prototype to establish a cooperative partnership that delegated responsibilities without destroying the local governance of the area. In most cases, the decision-making regarding the river corridor is deferred to the local municipalities through the UDC, as ultimately each township is accountable to their respective constituencies for setting policies and priorities that provide for its safety, health and welfare together with the river’s stewardship. To their credit, the local unit of the National Park Service has exceptional personnel and diverse resources that continue to support the UDC to carry out many of its mandated responsibilities despite the ongoing difficulties.

It is my hope that the relationship between the management partners of the Upper Delaware Corridor can be respectfully re-set so that the original terms and objectives of this unique model can be successfully carried outasagreed to some 32 years ago.

Although I am the UDC Representative for Shohola Township and the current elected chairperson of the council, I write this as a long-standing resident of the valley who was here 40 years ago and stayed around as a witness to these transitions.

Aaron Robinson,

Shohola Township, PA


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