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Opponents to Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area redesignation have unanswered questions

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Falls with walk across bridge

Sandy Hull remembers the plan to dam the Delaware River where the waterway flows through the Delaware Water National Recreation Area.

Hull, 75, lives in Layton, New Jersey, just over the Dingmans Ferry Bridge from Milford. In the 60s and 70s, the government started acquiring the now-park’s land from property owners to dam the river at Tocks Island and create a lake-sized reservoir. In February, after learning about a current proposal to change the designation of the 70,000-acre recreation area to a national park, Hull started the No National Park group. For her, the proposal is bringing back memories.

“It's a little sad for me. I get emotional about it,” she said. “But that was a long, long time ago. Now moving forward and always looking forward, what are you to do about it? Are you going to sit on your hands and let this happen? No. You have to take action. You have to get people engaged and you have to make them understand what's going on.”

Retired park superintendent John Donahue alongside the Pennsylvania and New Jersey chapters of the Sierra Club are not only proposing to change the 70,000-acre park’s designation but also its name to Delaware River National Park and Lenape Preserve. Changing the park’s designation is up to Congress. It would make the Water Gap the first national park in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They believe the change would help bring much needed upgrades to the recreation area as well as the prestige that comes with a national park title.

The National Park Service has different designations for the units the department oversees. National park is reserved for the big parks including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.

Hull started a Facebook page No National Park. There’s also a website, nonationalpark.org, outlining the group’s opposition to the change and offering resources for anyone looking for more information. The group also has yard signs and marketing materials available for businesses and residents who work and live around the park.

Hull and her group have more unanswered questions than answered ones.

“It’s not so much what you see in this proposal it’s what you don't see … There's like 81 access points to this park. So how are they going to control that? What are they going to close off? Is there going to be a fee? Where are they going to put the fee places? How much of our activity now is going to be restricted?” she said.

They worry about the strain a national park would put on first responders in the area, many of whom are volunteers.

The proposed plan would designate some of the 70,000 acres into a preserve so hunting can continue. The opponents would like to see a map of which part of the park would become the preserve.

They also are worried about the impact a possible increase in tourism would have on the ecology of the recreation area, among other issues.

The opponents like Kristin Albrecht also worry that with a national park comes more development to already crowded areas, like her hometown Milford.

“It just means more tourism to our area. We're already crowded here,” Albrecht said. It's becoming more and more unaffordable for locals to live here”

Funding for parks is determined by the number of visitors. In 2021, the water gap was the 15th most visited park in the entire national park system. So the opponents say changing the park’s designation will have no impact on the backlog of infrastructure improvements and maintenance already needed.

“There are some recreation areas that receive more funding than national parks. So just the name change does not necessarily mean more funding,” said Albrecht.

Members of the No National Park Group are not the only people opposed to changing the park’s name and designation. The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists is against the redesignation. In New Jersey, Warren County Commissioners passed a resolution in February in favor of changing the park’s designation and then rescinded it in April. Local municipalities in Pennsylvania within and around the park’s boundaries are also opposing the change. Milford Twp. Supervisors opposed the proposal at a May 2 meeting.

Both the Monroe County and Pike County Commissioners are seeking more information before they endorse or oppose anything. Pike County Commissioners sent letters to U.S. Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey and Rep. Matt Cartwright.

“No specific plan, of which we are aware, has been articulated to show how the proposed designation change would affect the land, the river and the people who use and enjoy the recreation area,” the letter states.

In the late 1950s the federal government began acquiring the land around the Delaware River to dam it at Tocks Island and create a lake-sized reservoir. The national recreation area was established in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson with the idea that the river would be dammed. By the 1970s, the opponents eventually got the dam idea scrapped and the land already acquired was preserved as the park.

Hull said that time was hard. She would watch not only her neighbor’s houses be destroyed but also historical homes, like Indian Valley Farm where Tom Quick was said to have hid from Native Americans.

“It was horribly emotional,” she said.

Hull called it a double-edged sword.

“If they hadn't taken the property for the dam, it would be development all down to the Walpack Valley. We know that,” she said. “But now we have this National Recreation Area and what we are trying to do now is to protect it and keep it,” she said.

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