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UDC: A quarter-century of partnership

May 1, 2013


[At the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) annual awards banquet on Sunday, April 28, keynote speaker George Fluhr Sr. put the 25-year history of the UDC in the context of the history of the river valley. This is an abbreviated version of his talk.]

“Those [early] settlers…started homes and farms, built a tanning industry and wood acid factories. They opened bluestone quarries and constructed roads. They put a canal on one side of the river and a railroad on the other side, and they transported the coal and lumber that made New York the world’s most famous city. And in the process of all this, the river created jobs here and hundreds of miles from here….

Unfortunately we lost most of the trees in the process, and there was much water pollution. But in less than 100 years, amazingly, the river cleaned itself, and trees grew back. And by 1950, when hundreds of sewage pipes still ran into the river, the river continued to clean itself, and the water tested pure enough to drink. Most families then were sustained by small farms, by work on the railroad, or by tourists who liked clean water, fresh air, and beautiful scenery. With the growth of an industrial America, much of our country advocated dams for hydroelectric power… and big cities needed not just more power, but also more drinking water. During the past century over a dozen dams were advocated for the Upper Delaware.

About 50 years ago, my uncle, Thomas Fluhr, who was the chief geologist for New York City, predicted that Barryville would soon be under water. A dam was to be built about 10 miles downriver from [Lackawaxen, PA] to create a reservoir…. But about the same time an opposing factor, national support for free-flowing rivers, had begun, and the Upper Delaware was proposed for study under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

In 1969, I attended a meeting of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, at which I heard proposals to preserve a free-flowing Upper Delaware River by prohibiting dams and by purchasing, through condemnation, several miles on each side of the river for a national park…. The coming of the National Park Service to the Upper Delaware with a plan they had written in Colorado provoked local residents to verbal and even physical violence. It was a bitter and tragic time along the Upper Delaware. For almost 20 years a fragmented local leadership, which included some very fine people, struggled through disrupted meetings, bitter criticism, the loss of elections and even the loss of lifetime friends.

Finally, in 1988, 25 years ago, a different management plan, written here in the valley, with the involvement of New York towns and Pennsylvania townships, business groups, hunting and fishing groups and even volunteer private citizens, created the Upper Delaware Council in a very unique plan. The concept on which the council is based is so new that, although it has been active for 25 years, we still, too often, have to explain a few things.

We still tell people, “This may be a unit of the National Park System but this is not a national park. Indeed the River Management Plan put it in bold print on page 15, saying “Therefore the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River is not a national park.”....

For the first time in history, the American government gave up its right to condemn land, unless a local government does not keep the contract, and even then, condemnation would lead only to a resale with deed restrictions. And under no circumstances could the federal government ever have more than 124 acres…. The representatives of the United States of America wanted so much to preserve the beauty of the Upper Delaware that they were willing to forgo their inalienable right of confiscation if the local governments would only protect the scenery and ecology of the land, through zoning. And—surprise—some of our towns were ahead of them and had already done it. The federal government got what it wanted, and our local citizens kept what belonged to them...

Moreover, the National Park Service agreed to manage the surface of the river. With over a quarter million users annually, and the risks many of these users take, and their garbage, policing of the river was recognized as a task that local governments neither wanted nor could afford, even though it was in their jurisdiction.

For the past 25 years, the contract has been kept and the council has met the challenge of preserving the river and corridor, and avoiding confiscation….

Our voting members are the two states (New York and Pennsylvania) and 13 local governments (New York towns and PA townships) which border on the Upper Delaware River. The Delaware River Basin Commission… is a non-voting member of the council. We operate under a direct contractual relationship with the National Park Service for the oversight, coordination, and implementation of the River Management Plan as approved by the Secretary of the Interior (who is appointed by the President.)

Think of it… In the council, you are partnering not just with other local governments, but with two states, with the multi-state river basin commission, and the United States Department of the Interior, and you, the local town and township delegates—you really are the majority, and really do control the majority of votes in this very prestigious group. And through its zoning each town or township agrees to certain standards that protect and preserve the land along the river.

Richard Byler, a professional planner, once wrote of the plan, “You have created perhaps a more innovative and unique document and organization than you realize. There is nothing comparable to your council in PA and NY and so far as I have yet found in the United States. Nothing else has voting membership from all levels of government and is created in this way. Technically, you have a bi-state law based on a council of governments inside one of the few Federal-bistate compacts.” It is unique….

Today the river is peaceful and clean—far more peaceful and clean than it was 150 years ago. No private land has been confiscated and no homes have been destroyed by our government. The villages are safe and functioning, bridges have been replaced and repaired, commerce continues, businesses thrive, and families grow up along the river….

So happy birthday, UDC.