The quest to get the Lackawaxen federally designated as a Wild and Scenic River
| January 29, 2024
If supporters of the Lackawaxen River, a jewel of the Upper Delaware River watershed, get their way, the river will join 226 others in the country in gaining a special congressionally designated recognition.
Activists hope to get the Lackawaxen, which is in Wayne and Pike Counties in Pennsylvania, named as a Wild and Scenic River.
The Lackawaxen River Conservancy, which started down this path two years ago, sees the designation as a way for the river to gain national recognition and prestige, boost the economy and secure technical and financial support from the Park Service for river management plan and projects, among other benefits.
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, established by Congress in 1968, was created to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition.
The 31.3-mile-long Lackawaxen, a tributary of the Delaware River, checks off many of those boxes.
It’s a hot spot for fly fishing for rainbow trout and for kayaking and swimming and hiking, and biking trails follow the waterway as it flows through Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The Upper Delaware River was one of the first rivers studied in the national program to be considered for inclusion, said Laurie Ramie, executive director of the Upper Delaware Council. Now, efforts are underway to get the Lackawaxen similar protection.
Getting that recognition, though, is far from easy.
It’s an effort that could take as long as a decade. That’s how long it took for the 73.4-mile stretch of the Upper Delaware River to go from being considered for a scenic and recreational designation (1968) to when the legislation was finally approved (1978).
Securing the designation requires congressional approval. But before all of that, there are years of preparation from local stakeholders.
The conservancy has been in touch with Pennsylvania’s federal legislators; Congressman Matthew Cartwright has expressed interest. However, the conservancy has not yet formally asked to start a feasibility study, funded by the government, which would help determine if the Lackawaxen is eligible under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
In a statement, Cartwright said: “Northeastern Pennsylvania is blessed with abundant natural resources, water streams and wildlife and residents deserve to enjoy the natural beauty of our district, including clean water for drinking, fishing, farming and recreation. I look forward to continuing the conversation on Wild and Scenic River Designation for the Lackawaxen River with the National Park Service, the Lackawaxen River Conservancy and members of the surrounding community.”
To be named, the river would have to be naturally free-flowing and of high-water quality, both conditions which apply to the Lackawaxen.
Delaware Currents reported previously that the Lackawaxen basin emerged as the cleanest of the nine basins in Pennsylvania that make up the Delaware River watershed, according to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection data.
Besides being naturally free-flowing and of high quality, the river must possess one or more “outstandingly remarkable values.”
“Outstandingly remarkable values are river-dependent natural, cultural, or recreational resources that are unique, rare, or exemplary at a regional or national scale,” according to the Park Service.
The Lackawaxen River Conservancy believes it qualifies.
Along the river, many portions of the historic Delaware and Hudson Canal are still visible, including the locks and lock houses. Across from the canal, the historic Stourbridge Line railroad, which transported barges of coal in the 1800s, is visible. Another part of history you see from the river is the Dorflinger Glass Factory.
When it comes to recreation, Christine Foland, vice president of the Lackawaxen River Conservancy, describes it as “a favorite of fishermen.” When the weather is right, the river is also popular with kayakers, tubers and rafters.
“In pursuit of the designation, we are sure we will discover more remarkable values,” Foland said.
The need for support from other organizations
The conservancy is continuing to seek support before approaching Cartwright to ask him to introduce a bill in Congress authorizing the study, which alone can take up to three years to complete.
“We are in the beginning stages of gathering local support,” Foland said. “What is going to inspire Matt Cartwright to present this to Congress? We are seeking documentation from other local organizations and municipalities, which we will then present to him to show there is support for this.”
For example, the conservancy presented its plans to the Upper Delaware Council in September.
“We haven’t been asked to make any official stance,” Ramie said. “But we can probably help because we’ve been through this process. We tried to warn them that this is the long haul. Once you start the process, it’s quite bureaucratic to go through the studies and get sponsorship from a Congressional representative.”
The Upper Delaware Council’s advice? Get as much buy-in from people along the river because it’s crucial moving forward.
“I have not heard any updates in a while,” said Rachael Marques, watershed specialist at the Pike County Conservation District. “As far as the process of becoming designated overall, I believe there are significant hoops to jump through.”
The study would address questions like what is needed to protect the outstanding remarkable values, what is needed to protect the quality of the river, what development can and can’t take place, and how to improve the protection of the river.
From there, it’s up to Congress.
“How long it takes for approval from Congress, that’s out of our hands,” Foland said.
The payoff could go far
The conservancy isn’t the only one going after this designation.
The Lower Delaware Wild and Scenic River Partnership is also approaching various municipalities, asking local elected officials to consider providing support for tributaries in their towns to be included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Why do local organizations take on such an arduous project?
The designation means that the river will continue to be controlled locally, but there is technical and financial support from the Park Service to protect the river.
“That’s why it’s called a partnership,” Foland said. That’s something that is important to clarify, Ramie added.
“There was a lot of pushback and skepticism about bringing in the federal government when we went after our designation,” Ramie said. “It isn’t always welcomed with open arms because people have fear of the unknown. Assessing where the community members’ feelings lie on that front is a first step.”
And there will surely be local representation throughout the whole process.
To receive the designation, a study committee has to be created, but once the designation is received, it turns into the river management council, where it will continue to be managed by local representatives.
Those representatives can come from various municipalities and organizations along the river.
“Why bother? The protection of the river is so important. That’s the first reason to bother,” Foland said. “If we receive designation, that’s permanent protection. It gets a permanent voice. Then there is national recognition and prestige, which can be an economic boost because people would love to come and visit a Wild and Scenic River. These are strong reasons for us to pursue this.”