Both sides on Delaware River National Park plan dig in
In the year since the plan was first proposed, opponents have galvanized while advances have been slow

| June 30, 2022

Lawn signs like these dot parts of Sussex County in New Jersey as opponents to a proposed national park at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area have made their views known. PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE
Lawn signs like these dot parts of Sussex County in New Jersey as opponents to a proposed national park at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area have made their views known. PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE

Note: Since the time this article was published, Representative Josh Gottheimer has issued a statement clarifying his position about the Delaware River National Park. The article has been updated to reflect his statement. 

Drive along some roads in Sussex County, N.J., and Pike County, Pa., and you will see lawn signs that have sprouted like summer tiger lilies.

“NO National Park Join us on FaceBook,” the green and white signs read. That same message even appears on an electronic sign at an intersection on Route 739 in Dingmans Ferry, Pa.

A year after the New Jersey and Pennsylvania chapters of the Sierra Club publicized the idea of elevating the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area into a full-fledged national park, battle lines have become more sharply defined, with opponents and proponents both settling in for what promises to be a protracted process.

Beyond intense public relations campaigns set by both sides – proponents have created a website called delvalpark.org and opponents have one called nonationalpark.org – there appear to be few concrete advances in the project, which would require an act of Congress.

(Read previous coverage by Delaware Currents of the national park plan here.)

John Donahue, the former superintendent of the recreation area who has become the public face for the national park campaign, said advocates continue to gather information, answer questions, attend meetings and gain support.

A national park is not a new idea. Similar trial balloons were floated about a dozen years ago and again in 2014, but park backers say it’s a proposal whose time has come. The creation of the Delaware River National Park would make it the only national park between Virginia and Maine and within a three-hour drive of 60 million people.

The Sierra Club’s plans call for the recreation area 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. Some connecting private lands would be purchased as part of the upgraded designation.

The normal process for getting a national park designated is five years, Donahue said. As for a best-case timetable, Donahue said the goal is to gain a national park designation as soon as possible but to work at it for as long as it takes.

Referring to the forested lands, waterfalls and wildlife in the recreation area, Donahue said, “These spectacular resources deserve this recognition.”

Murky Congressional support

So far, there’s been no legislation drafted and it’s unclear where members of Congress who represent districts within the recreation area stand on the national park question.

The offices of Representatives Susan Wild and Matthew Cartwright, Democrats of Pennsylvania who represent Monroe, Northampton and Pike Counties, which are in the recreation area, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement released on July 7, Representative Josh Gottheimer, whose district includes Sussex and Warren Counties in New Jersey, said: “As I said from moment one, I believe that this matter required significant local input because it directly impacts many North Jersey townships, boroughs, and residents. I have immense trust in the mayors and local governments of the Fifth District and their ability to represent the views of our shared constituents.

“Following constructive discussions with local mayors and officials, and solicitation of local input over the last months, at this stage, it does not seem that the proposal to redesignate the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area as a National Park has the necessary local support to move forward. As such, I will not be supporting the redesignation.”

Executives of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania chapters of the Sierra Club, who last year were organizing publicity about the national park, referred questions for this article to Donahue.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is home to an abundance of outdoor recreational activities and wildlife. Activists with the Sierra Club want to make the 70,000-acre area a national park and preserve.
PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE

The national park efforts are taking place against a backdrop of increasing uncertain economic conditions, growing inflation and upcoming mid-term elections in which Republicans are expected to gain a majority in the House, but Donahue said all of that was merely background noise. 

The bigger headwinds, though, might come from vocal opposition to the park plan. Donahue called critics “the party of no.” He said he respects the opinions of opponents but accused them of trafficking in disinformation. 

“We’ve had a lot of good reactions,” he said. “More recently, we’ve had some pushback.”

‘No National Park’ group forms

Sandy Hull, president of an opposition group called No National Park, said the proposal “had great flowery speech, but it had no data, no information.”

“There is a lot in this proposal that we don’t know a lot about,” she added. “This is all so incredibly vague. Every word needs to be scrutinized.”

Opponents have outlined a litany of concerns. Among them: is that existing infrastructure, which they say is already strained and in need of improvements, would be overtaxed by more visitors to a national park. Parking lots, roads, and bridges are already inadequate and the recreation area relies on volunteer fire and medical services from neighboring communities. How will those emergency responders keep up with more calls? 

“How would we handle an influx of visitors without more funding?” asked Kristin Albrecht, secretary of No National Park. She said traffic is already bad enough, particularly on weekends.

“We can’t handle anymore,” Albrecht said. “Certainly, our quality of life suffers as it is now.”

Hull said people are unaware of the proposal, adding that resentment lingers among local residents decades after the failed Tocks Island project that led to the recreation area. 

“The Sierra Club could take it to Congress and the next thing you know we’re sitting in a national park,” she said.

Opponents see losses ahead

Other questions persist: Would visitors have to pay a fee? Would any of the 81 roads into the recreation area be closed to better control access? Would the private property be seized by the government?

Hull said four school districts rely on impact aid, which is awarded by the federal government to offset the tax base lost for land in the recreation area. But the districts have to fight each year for every dollar and there’s no guarantee they get the funding, she said.

A national park designation does not automatically bring with it increased funding based on its status alone. 

“A park’s base funding is provided through regular appropriations and is determined by the number of visitors, mission-essential activities, number and historic designation of facilities, acreage, road and trail mileage if applicable, and other factors,” Kathleen Sandt, a spokeswoman for the recreation area, explained. “A change in designation alone may not impact these factors, but if the change includes additional lands and facilities, or results in a demonstrated change in visitation, that would be taken into account in future fiscal cycles.”  

More than a dozen municipalities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have so far adopted resolutions opposing the park designation “until more information is provided to the public for review and comment,” according to No National Park’s website. 

One of those localities is Sandyston, N.J., where George Harper is mayor.

“We can’t seem to get any information about anything going on,” he said, adding that he likes and respects Donahue but just fundamentally disagrees with the plan.

A potential loss of hunting access is a repeated concern raised by opponents. Hunting is allowed in some but not all units managed by the Park Service, which raises a red flag for sportsmen’s groups. 

According to the delvalpark website, 50,000 to 55,000 acres within the existing federal lands, to be designated the Lenape National Preserve, would still allow hunting. “The great majority of the land will continue to have all currently allowed hunting,” it said.

Opponents see any curbing of hunting as hurting localities whose economies are already fragile because so much of their land is tax-exempt. Harper said hunting is a huge economic driver for his township. He said hunters come from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont and those out-of-towners benefit the local delis, campgrounds, gas stations, and restaurants. 

But Donahue said opponents are conflating hunting-related spending with the amount of acreage available for hunting and said such spending would not appreciably dip. “It’s almost like people think people are spending their money in the woods,” he said.

Addressing critics’ concerns

Donahue acknowledged other concerns but refuted them as misplaced or factually incorrect.

About private property being seized: “When you’re talking willing seller, you’re not talking eminent domain.”

About the imposition of fees: “Another red herring,” he said. Had the recreation area wanted to impose fees, it could have done so already. It had previously considered – and rejected – the idea, he said. Becoming a national park would not automatically mean fees would come with it.

He said the infrastructure would expand as needed and that visitation is already starting at such a high level – an estimated 4 million people a year come to the recreation area – that any additional visitors would come in small, manageable increments.

“A lot of people are asking for more information,” he said, but added that a great deal of “misinformation” has been injected into the debate.

As for the forums and feedback, he said, “Whether they like it or don’t like it, we learn something.” 

Chris Mele

Chris Mele

Chris Mele is a reporter and editor with more than 30 years of experience in news, specializing in investigative and enterprise reporting.

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