Point and Counterpoint

Should the Delaware Water Gap become a national park?

Posted 3/23/22

Debunking myths about Delaware Water Gap’s national park designation

“The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation bill authorizes the creation of a 72,000-acre national park... A full …

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Point and Counterpoint

Should the Delaware Water Gap become a national park?


For this week's edition of the River Reporter, New Jersey Sierra Club head John Donahue and the PA Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists contributed statements for and against re-designating the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area as a national park.

Debunking myths about Delaware Water Gap’s national park designation

“The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation bill authorizes the creation of a 72,000-acre national park... A full 15 percent of this nation’s entire population will live within 100 miles of this reservation.”—President Lyndon Banes Johnson, September 1, 1965, on the signing of Delaware Water Gap legislation.

The Warren County Commissioners deserve a lot of credit for being leaders in protecting the quality of life for their citizens and for supporting the Delaware River National Park and Lenape Preserve that will enhance the prestige and economy of the existing park and surrounding area. Their leadership on this issue will benefit all Americans. While every opinion should be respected on the management of our public lands, it is important that we share the actual details of the proposal and not misinformation and speculation.

The purpose of designating the Delaware River National Park and Lenape Preserve is to place this gem of our national heritage into the jeweled crown of the national park system where it has always belonged.

Delaware River National Park and Lenape Preserve appropriately recognizes the singularly spectacular natural and cultural resources contained within this park. It recognizes the extraordinary complex of resources found in this one place: the Appalachian Trail; the Delaware, which is the longest undammed river in the eastern United States; the Kittatinny Ridge; and 12,000 years of demonstrated human occupation. All of this is within the homeland of the Lenape people. All these unique elements of our national heritage are found within the heart of hundreds of thousands of acres of connected public lands in one grand cultural landscape. Creating the park and preserve with the correct designations and maintaining the traditional activities, including hunting within the preserve, will fulfill the original intention of Congress to create equity in nature-based recreational opportunities for the now 60 million people living nearby, and create the 12th national park in the east. The vision in President Johnson’s words and echoed in legislative history will, when it is established, culminate in the Delaware River National Park and Lenape Preserve.

By this action, traditional uses are enshrined more securely in perpetuity within the Lenape National Preserve. “Preserve” is a designation that was created specifically to protect activities such as recreational hunting. The national-park portion will serve in perpetuity as a wildlife nursery and migration corridor. It will enhance the benefits to the hunting and non-hunting public by being adjacent to and surrounding the Delaware River National Park.

Some issues are raised that are simply not part of the proposal. This is not about imposing fees. In fact, the National Recreation Area has had a fee program for decades. Last year the National Park Service (NPS) held public hearings for their visitor-use management plan, including an entrance fee. The entrance fee was rejected by the public and by the NPS. The claim that state lands will be impacted is erroneous. There are no state lands included in the proposal. There will be no impact on state regulations or activities from this proposal.

What does the proposal do? It rectifies the incorrect designation backed into after the the Tocks Island Dam project proved to be a mistake. The reality is that the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DEWA) has never been, nor functioned as, a recreation area. National Recreation Areas, at the time, were defined as a strip of land surrounding a reservoir created by damming a river. We recognize that the Tocks Island Dam was never built, and the man-made lake was never created. The local people started a movement to stop the flooding of their beloved Delaware River Valley, creating a direct nexus to the 20th century environmental movement and giving it momentum. Without recourse to reverse the condemnations for the purpose of creating the dam, Congress moved ahead with the recreation area designation and provided little direction to the NPS about the thousands of buildings and historic structures extant within the boundary.

This proposal is the opportunity to intentionally designate these lands properly. Ensuring the best possible conservation and preservation of this area for future generations will honor the sacrifices of the many who went before us in the last century and in these last 12,000 years. The Delaware River National Park and Lenape Preserve will honor the First People who occupied the area for millennia and a Lenape Cultural and Education Center can welcome the hundreds of millions of visitors who will follow in the coming century yearning for beauty and inspiration and hungering for refreshment in nature. As President Johnson told us on that fateful day in 1965, when he signed the enabling legislation, “Here they will come, … and their lives will be infinitely richer because they came this way.”

This opinion is constructed from the actual words of the proposal to create the Delaware River National Park and Lenape Preserve and not from speculation.

John Donahue is the former superintendent of the federal lands around the Delaware Water Gap and current head of the New Jersey Sierra Club committee championing the change.

Loss of hunting or fishing access unacceptable

The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen & Conservationists (PFSC), Pennsylvania’s largest and oldest statewide grassroots sportsmen’s organization, voted at their most recent board meeting to oppose the current push to reclassify the Delaware Water Gap as a national park and preserve. The New Jersey Federation of Sportsmen is also on record in opposition to the designation change.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is a treasured piece of wild country which provides about 70,000 acres of land for many types of outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing.

“The recent movement to change the designation of the Water Gap from a national recreation area to a national park and preserve acknowledges that hunting will still be allowed on the designated preserve areas, but PFSC is concerned that we will see a substantial loss of huntable acres in the park areas,” said Lowell Graybill, PFSC president. “West Virginia hunters recently experienced a significant loss of huntable acres with the recent New River Gorge designation change.”

This loss could happen by regulation or through safety zones around new infrastructure that would certainly need to be built to accommodate the increased visitation that accompanies a designation as a national park. Hundreds, if not thousands, of acres could be eaten up by roads, buildings, parking lots and other new construction.

PFSC opposes any change that results in a net loss of huntable acres or fishing access at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

What does the redesignation mean for hunters?

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is one of the most popular outdoor destinations for sportsmen on the East Coast. Managed by the National Park Service, the national recreation area straddles Pennsylvania and New Jersey and provides access to roughly 70,000 acres of huntable public land, along with 40 miles of fishable streams.

The area is also extremely popular with hikers, paddlers, photographers and weekend explorers from nearby cities, and it has nearly as many visitors as Yellowstone National Park each year. There are no national parks between Acadia (more than 500 miles to the north) and Shenandoah (more than 250 miles to the south).

An effort by the Sierra Club is underway to redesignate the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area as a national park and preserve.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea. The new designation would result in a significant increase in funding. It would raise the national profile of the Delaware Water Gap and likely bring more visitors to the area than ever before.

But local hunters and hunting groups in the area are hesitant to embrace this designation because hunting is not permitted in national parks.

While hunting would likely be permitted in the preserve portion of the Delaware Water Gap, hunters are rightfully concerned that the change could result in a net loss of huntable acres, as has been the case with previous National Park designations.

The area’s famous waterfalls, its 100-plus miles of hiking trails, and the surrounding scenery are part of the reason the area is so popular.    

The Sierra Club says their vision for a national park and preserve would maintain hunting and fishing as traditional uses. They have made assurances that “hunters and fishermen will be among the first people they speak to” should Congress move forward with the idea.

They plan to advocate for the same model used when the New River Gorge National River was redesignated as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in 2020.     

That designation secured hunting and fishing as permitted uses in the New River Gorge Preserve. But it also resulted in a net loss of 3,715 huntable acres, including historic and convenient hunting ground, in the core of the Park.

There’s also a concern for the wildlife and habitat. How will the increased infrastructure and visitors affect the ecosystem? Overcrowding, littering, habitat degradation and red tape are serious concerns.

The mission of the PA Federation of Sportsmen & Conservationists is to protect and conserve Pennsylvania’s natural resources, outdoor heritage and Second Amendment rights. Learn more at pfsc.org.

Delaware Water Gap, national recreation area, national park, Lenape preserve, Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists


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