Will Delaware Finally Get Its "National Park"?

The Common in New Castle, Delaware

The Common in New Castle, Delaware would be within the boundaries of a proposed National Historical Park, but the property would not be acquired by the NPS. Photo by Ham_Guy via Flickr.

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.

You can make comments on-line, by e-mail to or by U.S. mail to:

Peter Samuel
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.

Comments

Jim Burnett said:

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.

Jim's forbearance makes him a model of diplomacy. Let me expand...

I downloaded & read the Executive Summary, and I must say my impression is, if there was ever a serendipitous hunk of steaming pork seasoned with unsavory & undue Legislative influence offered to a President-elect who promised and is on the lookout to challenge Business As Usual and give us Change, this has got to be it.

Go forth Barrack; smite the enemy.

On the other hand, that his own Vice President is a primary figure in this scheme, and it applies to the VP's own home-State, sets us up for a bit of classic Greek Theater.

Obama has still not made a clean escape from the Blagojevich quicksand. And here it is, happening on his own team. Oh sure, nobody is demanding cash in small bills, but I took me about a half second to instinctive wonder, "Who made Delaware first among equals?", and I expect that will be the reflexive reaction of 10s of millions.

"Obama, you asked for it, and here it is!"

No Jim, I think your tendered explanations of the lack of publicity for this hairball of malfeasance missed the mark entirely. No, I never heard of it (my theory will be) because the people responsible for it were hoping mightily I wouldn't.

Ted -

Thanks for the comments!

In the interest of brevity, I didn't include the history of previous proposals for a "park" for Delaware - the idea has been around for decades, and certainly predates Biden and the incoming administration. This is merely the latest in a series of such plans. Biden's new job certainly adds an extra dimension, and makes it even more awkward for the NPS.

The authors of the study at least scaled back Senator Carper's plan - in a big way. It would be difficult to determine how much political pressure they felt in preparing their recommendation.

The project got about the same level of publicity from the NPS as most similar studies - the problem was that the media apparently didn't see it as very newsworthy. Once I started looking on Google, I found a few AP stories outside of Delaware - but not many. I didn't sense any attempt by the NPS to sneak this one through. The timing for the public comment period during the holidays is awkward, but the legislation that authorized the study included a deadline for the NPS to submit the report to Congress, so that may have been a factor.

It has been common knowledge for years that Delaware has no national park. What amazed me when I looked at the NPS geographic search site was that it had nothing, nada- not an historic site , not a monument nothing. I can't figure out how it could have happened that Delaware with its historic buildings and beautiful natural coastline can be the only state or territory that is not a part of the NPS.
Perhaps until the plan becomes a reality just Old Swedes Church could be designated the national historic site it is. That should take less time and would eliminate the blank space.

From 1993-95 I ws honored toserve as a member of NPS Underground Railroad Advisory Committee from the state of Delaware. During NPS meetings and traveling to UGR sites throughout the country, Ms. BarbaraTagger, NPS Historian and Vincent DeForest, official, informed the committee about Delaware being the 'only' state without a National Park? I invited Ms. Tagger to tour the state and she was impressed. I finally contacted Delaware's Washington delegation and the rest is history. It has been a long time and long overdue. I am positive this time, Delaware will have a National Park for local, national/international visitors to appreciate and benefit from the state's treasures and history. Thanks to Senator Carper! The state may also experience in the future; Delaware Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway.