Delaware is the only state in the union without a unit of the National Park System, but a recently completed National Park Service study moves boosters for a "national park" in Delaware closer to their goal. Is this an idea whose time has come—or one with more political than practical merit?
Although work this year on a NPS unit for Delaware has been well-publicized in that state and posted on the NPS planning website, media focus on major national events has allowed the proposal to slip under the radar for most of the country.
On November 24, 2008, the National Park Service released the “Delaware National Coastal Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment.” This study was conducted in response to legislation initiated by Delaware's two U.S. senators, Thomas Carper and Joe Biden (now the vice-president elect).
The purpose of this study is to determine whether specific natural and cultural resources or areas in Delaware are nationally significant, suitable and feasible to qualify for potential congressional designation as a unit of the National Park System. The study identifies resources of national significance and evaluates whether they meet the criteria for new areas of the National Park System.
If you're interested in the details, you can download or read the entire report on-line. The link includes a shorter Executive Summary if you'd like the slimmed-down version, and specific recommendations are found at the link for Chapter 4 of the study.
The standard 30-day public comment period on the possible establishment of a national historical park or national historic site in Delaware ends on December 26th, which actually includes a couple of extra days due to the holiday.
Here's a quick recap of the study, which includes three alternatives:
Alternative A: No Action.
Current programs and policies of existing federal, state, county and non-profit conservation organizations would remain in place, but no unit of the National Park System would be established.
Alternative B: National Historical Park.
…would provide for the potential congressional establishment of a unit of the National Park System, a national historical park. The purpose of the park would be to preserve and interpret resources associated with early Dutch, Swedish and English settlement, as well as Delaware’s role in the birth of the nation and becoming the first state.
The boundary of the park would encompass the boundary of the New Castle NHL [National Historic Landmark] District…The concept envisions that the NPS would also be authorized to conduct tours to resources …in Delaware that are related to the early settlement and first statehood themes.
Under this proposal, the NPS would not anticipate acquiring ownership of land or facilities.
The annual cost for operations is estimated to be between $400,000 and $500,000, plus an annual NPS contribution of about $50,000 for maintenance of visitor services facilities. The NPS cost for preparation of a general management plan for the park is estimated at $600,000. NPS operations of the park would require the equivalent of five to seven full-time NPS interpretive rangers, although some of that staffing might be seasonal employees.
Grants and technical assistance would also be available to other organizations for historic preservation and restoration of resources within the boundary of the park and the costs of design, construction, installation and maintenance of exhibits related to the park. The federally provided share of the grants is estimated at up to $5,000,000.
Alternative C: National Historic Site.
This alternative would provide for the potential congressional establishment of a national historic site comprising Fort Christina and Holy Trinity (Old Swedes’) Church. [Costs and staffing would be smaller than Alternative B.]
The study concludes that Alternative B "represents the NPS's most effective and efficient alternative."
Senator Tom Carper's concept for a Delaware park was considerably more ambitious. It envisioned eight "themes," including "Colonization and Establishment of the Frontier" and "Founding of a Nation."
These themes would be highlighted and showcased in a format unique to the National Park Service…The Park will be structured much like a series of bicycle wheels, each with a hub and spokes. The hubs will be interpretive centers located strategically along the coast line. These hubs will provide the visitor with a comprehensive look at the themes most prevalent in the surrounding area. The spokes will be the connectors to the attractions and sites that make up the wheel.
An article in the December 15, 2008, News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware) describes Senator Carper's reaction to the NPS study:
"I would acknowledge the National Park Service has done a lot of work on the proposal…I believe they have done a thorough study and I'm pleased they have taken our effort seriously."
Still, Carper said, he believes historically significant areas like Lewes [the earliest town founded in the state] need to be included in any historical park that focuses on the beginnings of the state and efforts toward colonization.
"Their proposal isn't what we had hoped for," Carper said. "But I see it as a starting place."
So… what happens next? The NPS study summarizes the process:
At the end of the public comment period, the National Park Service will review all comments and determine whether any changes should be made to the report. Following the public comment period, the report will be transmitted to the Secretary of the Interior who, in turn, will transmit the report to the United States Congress.
Although the conclusions reached by the NPS will be a factor, whether or not the idea moves forward—and what form a proposed park would take in a bill before Congress—is ultimately a political decision.
If you'd like to comment on this proposal, you should take a look at the report so you can offer an informed opinion.
National Park Service
Division of Park Planning and Compliance
200 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Your comments must be submitted or postmarked by 11:59 p.m. Mountain Time on 12/26/2008.
An unrelated event could add a bit of impetus to Delaware's bid for a NPS site.
Both the House and Senate have passed legislation that was initiated by another Delaware politician, Representative Mike Castle. The bill, now awaiting the President's signature, calls for a new set of commemorative quarters celebrating national parks and similar sites in each state. Representative Castle also gets credit for brainstorming the very popular series of quarters featuring the 50 states.
As previously reported in the Traveler, the proposed series of commemorative coins would feature a "national park or other national site in each state," hence technically solving the dilemma of Delaware, which has no NPS sites to grace that state's 25-cent piece. Whether this shortcoming will be used to help justify a "national park" for Delaware remains to be seen.
Previous comments by Senator Carper appear in the September 7, 2005, Congressional Record, and provide a little insight into his well-intentioned interest in this project in the state he represents:
Delaware is first in so many ways, but it is the only state without a national park. Every year, millions of Americans plan their vacations around our nation’s National Park System. They log onto the Park Service web site and search for ideas for their family vacations. Right now, that search will turn up nothing for Delaware.
With a national park unit here in Delaware, that will change. In the future, those families will be considering a trip to Delaware to visit our national park. Those trips will be a significant boost to our economy and will teach new generations of Americans about Delaware’s rich cultural heritage.
Delaware is a fine state with a rich history. It's certainly not my intention to diminish the value of the state's resources or people, but in view of the existing pinch on park service budgets and staffing, one might be forgiven for wondering whether adding yet another unit of this type to the system is the right approach. Sites proposed for inclusion in a national historical park are already being protected and managed by other government or private entities, so absence of a NPS presence doesn't leave those areas at risk. NPS planners did an admirable job of narrowing down Senator Carper's ambitious proposal to a concept which, if ultimately passed, is at least more manageable.
Traveler occasionally runs articles in a "Pruning the Parks" series about NPS sites that have been decommissioned and existing sites such as Steamtown, which owe their existence at least in part to a well-placed political sponsor.
Decision-makers have plenty of time to consider the pros and cons of a proposed national park site for Delaware. If it meets all the criteria for addition to the system, that's well and good. If not, perhaps the "system" will conduct some "preemptive pruning" by deciding against such a site if it doesn't pass muster.