MILFORD, Pa. – Up a winding mountain road two hours from any major city, a small parking lot appears through the fall foliage and is as busy as any Wawa. Cars from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York are stalling in places and forging a few new ones.
” You go ? Drivers asked any hiker standing near a car.
Almost all were there that Friday afternoon in October to see Raymondskill Falls, Pennsylvania’s tallest waterfall and one of the top attractions at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Encompassing 70,000 acres of mountains, forests and the Delaware River, the Water Gap is one of the country’s most popular outdoor destinations with more than 4.5 million visitors per year.
What is missing, fans in the area say, is the distinction of being named a “national park,” the crown jewels featured in documentaries and tabletop books, often on the outdoor enthusiast’s checklist. air from around the world. Groups like the Sierra Club in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, along with other outdoor enthusiasts, are trying to change that, moving from “national recreation area” to “national park and reserve.”
“You never hear people say, ‘I’m going to go see all the national recreation areas in America,'” said John Donahue, who spent 14 years as manager of the Delaware Water Gap Park. “This place, basically, is already a national park.”
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York do not have a national park, the closest being Shenandoah, four hours south of Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is home to several national historic parks, including Independence Mall and Valley Forge, both of which are prized for their place in history. National parks like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, however, are designated for their natural beauty and resources. There are only nine east of the Mississippi River.
John Kashwick, vice president of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said turning the Water Gap into a national park is about social justice. The Sierra Club has supported the proposal for almost a decade.
âIt’s not just landscapes,â Kashwick said. âIts proximity to major urban centers like New York and Philadelphia makes it accessible to millions of people. There are so many people who could be served by this park.
Donald Miles, vice president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, said moving from a recreation area to a national park would ideally require a larger budget for equipment and infrastructure.
âWe are seeing essentially the same number of tourists as Yellowstone but without the corresponding budget,â he said.
The Water Gap has an annual budget of $ 8.2 million from the National Park Service, while the budget for Yellowstone National Park is $ 27.6 million.
Like Yellowstone, the Water Gap spans multiple states, and the New Jersey and Pennsylvania chapters of the Sierra Club plan to present proposals to elected officials, Indigenous leaders, business owners and residents of both states in the coming months. . From there, it would require the support of the United States House and Senate. This happened in West Virginia in December 2020, when the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve was established. New River is the 63rd national park in the United States and while the effort received overwhelming support, some residents of West Virginia feared the area simply did not have enough amenities – campgrounds, shops, parking spaces and bathrooms – to keep pace with the rise in tourists the name would change.
âThe United States of America’s national park system is the gold standard in the world of conservation and stewardship,â a West Virginia business owner told The Guardian in May. “I don’t want this to be where the mark is diminished.”
The Delaware Water Gap is already seeing double the number of tourists New River does, but Sean Strub, mayor of Milford, Pike County, said he had heard no opposition to a possible name change. Milford, the northern gateway to Water Gap, already has a hotel, rentals and restaurants, Strub said.
âThe Water Gap is already a deciding factor in all of our development plans here,â Strub said. âThat’s why people are moving to Pike County and going there. The Water Gap can certainly handle a lot more people, but maybe not a lot more cars. “
John Christie, a Monroe County commissioner, said it was too early to say how the rebranding would play out. He is worried about the smaller roads that cross the Water Gap and hopes budget increases can address them.
âThe infrastructure in this area does not support a lot of traffic,â he said. “I’d like to know more, the arguments on both sides of this.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an influx of tourists to the area, said Donahue, the retired park superintendent, and this has highlighted some parking issues and caused the closure of some trails to popular waterfalls, like Raymondskill. He said fees for using national parks and possible budget increases could help address these issues as a national park. Some national parks require entrance fees.
âIt would require more improvements in parking, camping, access to the river – just more opportunities,â he said.
Like New River, the Water Gap would be a national park with a reserve, which would secure hunting and fishing, two major traditional uses there. Miles said hunters’ opposition was a concern when the Sierra Club first pitched the idea several years ago.
âHunters and fishermen will be among the first people we talk to,â he said.
Atop a view overlooking the river and New Jersey, Donahue, 68, pointed out how precious the Water Gap is, given its location in the Northeast and the fact that it was almost lost. . In the early 1970s, the US Army Corps of Engineers planned to build a dam on the river, and the resulting reservoir was supposed to provide drinking water to Philadelphia and New York. Activists and residents pushed back and the plan was scrapped. The National Park Service took over in 1975.
âThere are places where you can see all three states at once,â he said.
If the national park plan is approved, Donahue said, the change would happen “immediately.”
âThis place already works that way,â he said. âWe would just need new panels. “