If the Delaware Water Gap becomes a national park, what will happen to hunting access?

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The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is one of the most popular outdoor destinations for East Coast sports enthusiasts. Managed by the National Park Service, the National Recreation Area Straddling Pennsylvania and New Jersey, it provides access to approximately 70,000 acres of huntable public land, as well as 40 miles of fishable shoreline. The area is also hugely popular with hikers, paddlers, photographers, and weekend explorers from nearby towns, and it sees nearly as many visitors as Yellowstone National Park each year. And partly because there are no national parks between Acadia (more than 500 miles to the north) and Shenandoah (over 250 miles to the south), an effort is underway to redesignate the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area as a national park and preserve.

Which, at first glance, 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 a number of local hunters and hunting groups in the region are reluctant to adopt 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, these groups are rightly concerned that the change could result in a net loss of huntable acres, as has been the case with previous national park designations.

How a Proposed Dam Site Became a National Treasure

At the heart of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is the Delaware River itself, which forms the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey as it flows through the forested Pocono Mountains. It’s the longest undammed river in the eastern United States, but without the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposal to dam the Delaware in the 1960s, the National Recreation Area wouldn’t have never seen the light of day.

When the federal government acquired the approximately 70,000 acres of land in 1960, it did so with the intention of building Tocks Island Dam, which would have created a 37-mile-long reservoir surrounded by the Tocks Island Recreation Area. The project proved controversial, however, and after the federal government realized that the cost of the project would likely outweigh its benefits, the Tocks Island project was abandoned in 1975 and that acreage was handed over at the National Park Service. With this decision, a former dam site became a 70,000 acre park with 40 miles of protected free-flowing river.

A deep history of hunting and fishing in Delaware

NPS spokesperson Kathleen Sandt grew up near the Delaware Water Gap, and she says one of the main reasons the Delaware Water Gap is so popular is because it’s located in the heart of the most densely packed corner. populated by the country. The area is less than a day’s drive from Philadelphia, New York, and several other major metropolitan areas along the eastern seaboard.

“Our location is critical,” says Sandt. “We are less than six hours away from the approximately 55 million people who live in this Boston-Washington corridor. Many people from these urban centers come to find this open space – this connection to nature – and to see the beauty we have to offer.

A fisherman holds an American shad, pulled from the Delaware River. NPS

In 2021, Sandt says around 4.3 million people visited the national recreation area – just 500,000 fewer visitors than the few 4.8 million who visited Yellowstone National Park last year.

She explains that the area’s famous waterfalls, its more than 100 miles of hiking trails and the surrounding landscape are part of the reason the area is so popular. But it’s the cultural resources, she says, that make it such a special place, as archaeological digs near the river have documented more than 10,000 years of continuous human habitation there.

“People have been on the earth, changing it and being changed by it for 12,000 years,” Sandt says. “Hunter-gatherers were here, and archaeologists have found net sinkers that tell us that people were fishing here. People were also hunting here, and that was also key to their ability to survive. So this tradition is ancient .

With this deep-rooted tradition in mind, hunting was enshrined in the original legislation that created the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

“They created the park saying that hunting would be allowed here,” Sandt explains, and she says hunters continue to be an important part of the landscape today.

Concerns of the local hunting community

Sandt explicitly clarifies that the NPS is not involved in the “externally proposed renaming”. She says the idea is currently being floated by the Pennsylvania and New Jersey chapters of the Sierra Club, and that until Congress introduces a bill to officially redesignate Delaware Water Gap, the NPS is not in able to comment on a possible national park and reserve designation. .

The Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club did not respond to requests for comment. But Donald Miles, the vice president of the Pennsylvania chapter, said The Associated Press in November 2021 that the Sierra Club’s vision for a national park and preserve would maintain hunting and fishing as traditional uses at Delaware Water Gap. He assured that “hunters and anglers will be among the first people we talk to” if Congress goes ahead with the idea.

black bears away from delaware water
A black bear and her cubs walk along the river at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which is also home to healthy populations of white-tailed deer and turkeys. NPS through Facebook

Miles also hinted in November that the Sierra Club plans to champion the same model used when the New River Gorge National River was renamed New River Gorge National Park and Reserve in 2020. Thanks in part to the involvement of the local outdoor community, the designation has secured hunting and fishing as permitted uses in the New River Gorge Reserve. But it also resulted in a net loss of 3,715 huntable acres, including historic and practical hunting ground, in the heart of the park.

This recent history helps explain why groups like the Pennsylvania and New Jersey chapters of Backcountry hunters and fishers reluctant to support the Sierra Club’s efforts to rename the Delaware Water Gap.

Read more : Our new national park allows hunting? How locals fought for sports traditions and tourism in the New River Gorge

“While we appreciate the hunt being recognized as important to sustain by those working for this change, we are concerned that a loss of huntable acres may yet occur,” the two chapters said in a joint statement. They added that in the event of a loss, “those acres would have to be compensated by newly acquired land which is not currently open to public hunting”.

BHA Pennsylvania Chapter President Don Rank said that while they try to keep all 70,000 acres open to hunting, as it is today, the national park designation and reserve would require more infrastructure to support the growing number of visitors. “Parking lots, buildings – all of this is going to take away valuable habitat,” he says.

This touches on a larger issue that goes beyond access to hunting. Some NPS designations, and especially National Park designations, can often become a double-edged sword, not only for the people who live and recreate in an area, but also for the wildlife and habitat that the designation is meant to protect. Because national parks take the top spot, they attract many visitors (and their dollars). But they can also usher in new headaches: overcrowding, litter, habitat degradation, and bureaucracy. In addition to hunting bans, many national parks prohibit dogs and backcountry camping, and they sometimes implement permit systems for certain campsites or river access.

Looking outside the tens of thousands of huntable acres the National Recreation Area currently provides, Rank says there is a decent amount of public land in this part of Pennsylvania. From around 1 million acres of state game land designated for hunting in the Keystone State, just over 25,000 are located within an hour’s drive of the Delaware Water Gap. But Rank fears that any loss of huntable land will force hunters to concentrate on these small tracts.

“We’re concerned because there are 70,000 acres between the two states,” Rank says. “That’s a lot of hunting access, and losing some of that would be a huge blow to our hunting and angling community.”

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