Filling the gap

Lobbying for the tristate area’s first national park

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 11/9/21

MILFORD, PA — Of the United States’ 63 national parks, there are just nine that lie east of the Mississippi. And none of those belong to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or New York …

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Filling the gap

Lobbying for the tristate area’s first national park

Posted

MILFORD, PA — Of the United States’ 63 national parks, there are just nine that lie east of the Mississippi. And none of those belong to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or New York State.

Three environmentalists hope to change that by upgrading the status of the Delaware Water Gap, a popular “national recreation area” shared by northeast PA and New Jersey.

Attracting several million visitors a year, and with more than 100 miles of walking trails, more than 30 miles of terrain for bikers, and access to the Delaware River for swimmers and boaters, many have long assumed that it’s already a national park.

“So far, the reaction of everybody has been, ‘You mean it’s not one now?’” vice chairman of the PA Sierra Club Don Miles said. He’s part of the trio leading the upgrade effort, along with the New Jersey Sierra Club’s vice chairman John Kashwick and John Donahue, the recreation area’s superintendent between 2003 and 2017.

Donahue spent 38 years with the National Park Service and traveled all over the country during that time. No national park compares to the Delaware Water Gap, he said, in terms of letting visitors get “up close and personal” with the native flora and fauna. Nestled in the countryside, yet not far from several major cities, the area is the “best of both worlds,” he said.

“On the one hand, I’ll sit on my deck on Sunday mornings and watch the turkeys, the bear, the deer and the chipmunks,” he said. “And then I can get in my car and be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in two hours.”

Though still in the early stages, the effort has already gained a lot of attention from outdoor enthusiasts and media throughout the tri-state area.

“We are anxious to start doing some grassroots efforts to let people know what is being proposed,” Miles said, adding that since the idea was first presented on a webinar, dozens are on board to help spread the word. “We’re just getting started… we’re developing kind of an elevator speech so we’re all on the same page about what we’re proposing.”

It’s not the first time the idea has been floated. The Sierra Club received funding 10 years ago to complete a feasibility study on the Delaware Water Gap’s eligibility, but the local hunting community pushed back on the idea, fearing they would lose the ability to hunt if it were a national park.

With a revised plan this time around, the three are hopeful they can bring hunters on board too. Following the example of parks in West Virginia and Alaska, they say that the Delaware Water Gap could be a national park and preserve; the preserve areas would allow hunting. “Anything you can do in the Delaware Water Gap now, you’ll be able to do—and do better—if it becomes a national park,” has been the unofficial slogan of the effort so far.  

“The [area] currently is about 70,000 acres on both sides of the river. And there are adjacent preserve lands by both New Jersey and Pennsylvania state parks, and it might be possible… to add some of those state lands to create an enlarged national park,” Miles said. “If all of the adjacent protected state lands were added, the national park could be about 200,000 acres.”

Why would officially upgrading its status make a difference? Federal funding is a big part of it. Over the past several years, the area has received anywhere between three and five million visitors annually—roughly same visitation rates as NPS crown jewels like Yosemite and Yellowstone, yet with only a fraction of those parks’ budgets.

“We also have the burden of a huge amount of infrastructure,” Donahue said. “A place like Grand Canyon has the same amount of buildings, the same amount of roads, probably the same amount of trails, but I think their budget is three times larger, and they have a huge fee program.”

The Department of Interior has historically had a “western bias,” according to Donahue, who pointed out that in the 1920s, the National Park Service actually testified against the creation of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, calling it a “cutover stump land” that didn’t have the significance to be a national park.

For Miles it’s an equity issue. Residents of the tri-state area can travel far before finding a national park to visit. The nearest ones are hundreds of miles from here in either direction: New River Gorge, WV; Cuyahoga Valley, OH; Shenandoah, VA; and Acadia, ME.

“There are 42 million people in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York: no national park. There are 60 million within a three-hour drive from the current recreation area,” Miles said. “Those 60 million deserve to have access to a national park just like the folks west of the Mississippi do.”

Upgrading an area to national park status takes an act of Congress. So Miles, Donahue and Kashwick have a long road ahead of them. But they’re hopeful to keep spreading the word and building support in the coming months, first enlisting the support of the area’s locals, then of local government officials, and so on. Their top goal is to get the attention of President Joseph Biden, who they hope would be supportive of seeing his home state of Pennsylvania get its first national park.

Donahue said he has the support of officials in New Jersey so far and will soon be briefing the mayor of Milford on the proposal. He thinks the entire tri-state area has a vested interest in seeing the creation of its own national park.

“Like John Muir said, ‘They’re not just fountains of timber and water, these are fountains of inspiration for mankind.’ And that’s exactly what Delaware Water Gap is.”

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