UPPER DELAWARE REGION — Joe Hinkes isn’t new to the region, having held National Park Service posts here in the past; but the career law enforcement professional recently assumed the position of chief ranger for the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River (UDSSR) and has already begun forming fresh relationships with its various stakeholders.
Hinkes lives in Sandyston Township, NJ, just south of Port Jervis, NY with his wife Ann, son Liam and daughter Eleanor. He finds that his daily commute along the Delaware provides him with ample opportunities to connect with those who live, work and recreate in the river corridor.
Hinkes started with the park service in 1990 in Grand Teton National Park, and shares some history there with NPS Superintendent Sean McGuinness, as both men held the position of river rangers in the Tetons at different times.
“It’s quite a coincidence, as there are not a lot of us,” said Hinkes. “We both lived in the same place in the Tetons and had one of the best jobs in the park service, floating the Snake River.” Hinkes held a post in the Northeast region in 1993, then in 1996 transferred to White Sands in New Mexico. He returned to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in 1999 and is one of the few rangers to have worked all three districts there.
With a fairly new superintendent at the helm (McGuinness completed his first year here in February), Hinkes is helping to identify new river safety strategies to expand traditional approaches. Following a spate of drownings in recent years, no lives were lost in the Upper Delaware in 2010 due to recreational use. Hinkes would like to see this trend continue.
“One of the issues is that people tend to drown when they attempt to swim across the river,” he said. “A traditional response would be having a presence in those areas. But we need to add new non-traditional approaches involving all the stakeholders. The canoe liveries, campground operators, fire and rescue companies, townships and private landowners along the river—it impacts all of them when that happens. We’re looking at ways to educate the public.”
A draft Water Safety Program is being expanded, and includes a water safety communications plan. Some diverse populations of river users are drowning with greater frequency than others, according to McGuinness, so new outreach efforts target Spanish-speaking populations.
Another example of a non-traditional approach is the Loaner PFD Program, in which the canoe liveries donate personal floatation devices (PFDs) for the rangers to distribute. “Instead of just the enforcement action, which might involve a ticket or warning, we can also provide them the PFD so they can continue their trip. They receive some education, but also a safety device and it’s not a completely negative contact. We want to make a lasting change in behavior.”
Outreach is being expanded into communities outside the river valley to educate those who travel to the Upper Delaware. Public service announcements that cross language barriers are one vehicle, and the park service is looking into social media strategies that might include Facebook, YouTube and more in an attempt to reach younger river users. Lifesaver cards with safety messages have been created to engage the youngest visitors.
In addition to safety, enhanced resource protection is a key goal. Recent law enforcement funding of $107,000 has been approved and will be divided among townships and departments. The small NPS enforcement staff increases its capabilities by working with cooperating local law enforcement agencies as a force multiplier.
“We owe it to the fishing guides and those folks who are doing everything right with the commercial use agreements to take enforcement action on those who are trying to skirt the system and take shortcuts,” said Hinkes.
Hinkes and McGuinness met with the guides recently to talk about how to work collaboratively. One measure involves applying decals to the boats so rangers can easily recognize the guides. “It’s really nice to build those relationships so that a guide doesn’t get checked five miles downriver from where we just checked him,” said Hinkes. “We’re trying to be sensitive to the experience they’re trying to create for their client.”
Hinkes is also the team leader for the Northeast Region Special Events and Tactics Team within the NPS, and is occasionally deployed throughout the country. Last summer, he served at the Wind River Indian Reservation in Operation Alliance to reduce violent crime. He has also been detailed to Arizona related to drug interdiction on the border. The work often involves assisting other agencies. “It all goes back to building mutually respectful relationships,” he said.
As for enforcement in the Upper Delaware, Hinkes said, “You really have to know your stuff here. It’s a very challenging place to work because you have to know the ins and outs of the laws and your authority and jurisdiction and at the same time provide the public the professional service that they have a right to expect from us.”
“It’s all about relationship building and providing a safe and really outstanding experience for all the user groups that come to enjoy the river,” said McGuiness. “We want them to come back.”
Since 1980, 58 drownings have been recorded on the Upper Delaware River, with 55 of the victims not wearing life jackets. Visit www.nps.gov/upde/planyourvisit/riversafety.htm  to learn more about the best ways to avoid becoming a statistic.