MILFORD (TNS) – At the top of a winding mountain road two hours from any major city, a small parking lot appears through the fall foliage. Cars from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York are stalling in spots and forging new ones.
” You go ? The 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’s 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.”
âYou never hear people say, ‘I’m going to go and see all the national recreation areas in America,â said John Donahue, who spent 14 years as manager of the Delaware Water Gap park. âThis place, basically, is already a national park. “
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York do not have a national park, the closest being Shenandoah in Virginia. There are only nine national parks 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. “Its 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 also encompasses several 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 months to to come.
From there, it would take the support of Congress and the 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 the newest since 2004.
The Delaware Water Gap is already seeing double the number of tourists New River does, but Sean Strub, mayor of Milford in 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. “This is why people move to Pike County and why they visit. The Water Gap can certainly accommodate 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 has concerns about the small roads that cross the Water Gap and hopes the budget increases could remedy them.
âThe infrastructure in this area does not support a lot of traffic,â he said. “I would like to know more, the arguments on both sides of the issue.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an influx of tourists to the area, Donahue said, and this has highlighted some parking issues and caused the closure of some trails to popular waterfalls, like Raymondskill. He said national park user fees 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. “We would just need new signs.”