A Walk in the Park?

Delaware remains the only state without a national park. Will a new proposal for protecting our coastal heritage finally get us recognized?




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On a cold, sunny morning, Senator Tom Carper stands with a small group of people on the stone path at the Fort Christina monument, discussing economic revitalization and local history.


He looks out at the Christina River.

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“Almost 400 years ago, a bunch of Swedes and Finns sailed right up that river and landed right here to establish the colony of New Sweden,” he says. Carper smiles. We are, he notes, standing on hallowed ground.

The immediate area, however, seems barren. The water is dark, a vacant lot nearby is dotted with trash. The senator sweeps his arms toward the overgrown riverbanks and says he envisions a bright future. He imagines the area bustling with activity, busy with tourists soaking up a bit of local history, then hitting nearby night spots.

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“Tourism,” he says, “has to be a big part of our future.”

Photograph © by Luigi Ciuffetelli

That’s especially important now, Carper believes, because the pillars of economic health are changing. “We’ve lost 17,000 jobs at the DuPont Company. We’ve lost a couple thousand jobs at Hercules, several thousand jobs at GM and Chrysler, and we’re seeing a consolidation of jobs in financial services with the Bank of America buyout of MBNA. We need to find ways to strengthen our economy.”

Though he foresees biotech and legal services as possible economic strengths, Carper insists that tourism will be essential. Future attractions that might draw visitors to the Wilmington area include an upscale casino complex that was planned for the Seventh Street Peninsula and a riverfront convention center.

But state leaders, at Carper’s urging, have invited the help of an unlikely agency they believe might not only help draw people to the riverfront, but will also provide a framework to showcase cultural and historical attractions along the Delaware coast—the National Park Service.

Congress is currently considering the Delaware National Coastal Special Resources Study Act, introduced in the fall of 2004 by Carper, U.S. Senator Joe Biden and U.S. Representative Mike Castle. The bill would authorize the National Park Service to study the feasibility of establishing a park unit here in Delaware. Already passed in the Senate, the measure now awaits judgment by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The National Park Service’s mission is to preserve both natural and cultural resources for people to enjoy, which may make it the one agency able to help an area grow its tourism economy while preserving and enhancing the features of the local landscape that make an area unique.

In this area, the First State runs last. It is the only state with no affiliated units of the NPS. NPS units include such places as heritage areas, monuments, cemeteries, battlefields, historic sites, seashores and scenic trails. Most states have multiple units. Maryland boasts more than 20. Pennsylvania has at least 27. Even Rhode Island hosts three. Yet click Delaware’s spot on the NPS website map, as Carper did while planning a family trip to Alaska several years ago, and you are led to an empty page.

“If this is a horse race,” Carper says, “not only are we dead last, but the rest of the field has lapped us a time or two.”

The idea of a local national park is not a new one. Driven by state pride and a desire to protect natural resources from development, state leaders have pursued a couple of bids over the years. Serious talks about establishing a unit in Delaware likely began in the 1950s, when anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War turned local minds toward nationally memorializing Fort Delaware and other Civil War-related sites, but the discussions eventually faded, along with the anniversary.

Biden revived talks of a Delaware national park in June 1993, when he asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to look into managing the Burnt and Great Cypress swamps downstate. According to a News Journal article, Biden’s goal was to protect “a unique, natural treasure of outstanding beauty and environmental significance.”

Talks with local residents and organizations, however, soon scuttled the plan. Delaware’s director of state parks, Charles Salkin, speculates that residents were uneasy about the federal government assuming control of the largest tract of open space in Sussex County. Perhaps they also imagined the most populous sections of Yosemite and feared an unpalatable park experience—one of long lines of cars weaving through the swamp and belching exhaust while tourists tried to snap photos and herons and muskrats made off with their picnic food.

The current Delaware National Coastal Special Resources Study Act presents a new scenario—the Delaware National Coastal Heritage Park. The unit would be a national heritage area, an NPS category for affiliated lands or communities where important cultural developments in the nation’s history were born.

These are not your grandparents’ parks, your Yellowstones and Grand Canyons, where the federal government stepped in to cordon-off and protect vast, breathtaking tracts of wilderness and wildlife from human interference. Heritage areas focus on cultural resources, celebrating human connections to particular stretches of land.

Heritage areas also require much less federal involvement than parks do. Though the government would offer financial support, it would not swoop in and take them over. It neither owns nor manages a heritage area. Partnerships of national, state and local groups do that. Instead, the NPS designates a stretch of territory as nationally significant, then provides money and guidance to show local groups how to manage their unit.

The 27 existing heritage areas cover a range of American developmental steps, from the roots of the Industrial Revolution in Massachusetts and Rhode Island to the Wright brothers’ aviation legacy in Ohio. Many of them are marked by a handful of visitors centers spaced along a geographic feature, such as a river, that offer tourists historical information and direct them to nearby sites of interest.

One example of the concept in action is the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, a more than 450- square-mile stretch of land along the Blackstone River, spanning 24 towns from Worchester, Massachusetts, south to Providence, Rhode Island. Sue Andrews, of the corridor’s governing commission, says the core commitments of the Blackstone Corridor organizations are “telling stories of the American Industrial Revolution, enhancing the quality of life for the community, and balancing conservation and growth in the region.”

Though state and local groups do much of the work in the corridor, Andrews and Robert Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, say NPS involvement has been essential.

“Back in the ’80s (when the Blackstone heritage area was established), people came together to promote the idea from different angles and motivations,” Billington says. “Some were interested in tourism development, some in environmental improvement or preservation, and some in business and community development.”

National involvement acted as an umbrella. The NPS “brought pre-existing community groups together—historical, conservation, tourism and business—and helped them integrate their resources and goals,” Andrews says. “It helped these individual organizations see how much they shared in aims, and how they could work together to further those goals.”

And they did.

After years of pollution and abuse from textile companies that had dammed the length of the river, the Blackstone was left neglected, its waters choked with trash, its banks littered with abandoned mills. “When we started, we had a scarred up landscape—a dirty, filthy landscape with dis-investment going on,” Billington recalls.

Yet when a place is deemed nationally significant, a swelling of pride is inevitable, Billington says. Over the past 20 years, the Blackstone coalition has organized river clean-ups, built museums and visitors centers, and restored abandoned mills to livable, historically refurbished properties.

Visitors can now paddle the river, take tours with national park rangers, attend art and ethnic festivals, bike scenic trails, drive wildlife-watching loops, and see many Industrial Revolution-themed sites. Four interpretive centers along the corridor have become centers of community involvement.

“I’ve been looking at these mill buildings my entire life,” Billington says, “and where there were cinder blocks and boarded-up windows, now there are multi-paned windows, vitality and life on the side of the river.”

Though the revitalization seems like it would have required a huge federal outlay of funds, it didn’t. Billington says cost-efficient community regeneration has occurred because the national contribution attracts private investment. During its development, the Blackstone heritage corridor has earned a federal investment, Billington says, averaging about $1 million per year. “Over a period of nearly 20 years, that small federal investment has been leveraged many, many times over,” Billington says. He estimates private investment in core areas at $350 million.

“To me, the National Heritage Area program is the best program that has influenced life here in the Blackstone Valley,” Billington says. “It’s not a federal bailout. It’s not a federal takeover. It’s a federal investment in a national story.”

Telling a story, it turns out, is a key requirement for an area to be approved by the NPS. Whether that story is cultural, historical or environmental, Salkin says, “It needs to be compelling.” And, the NPS says, it needs to be original.

Delaware has it covered. Carper tapped old friend and mentor Jim Soles, a retired University of Delaware professor of political science, to lead a committee of 12 Delawareans to find possible national park sites.

Soles says our state would have no problem telling a story of national interest. During the exploration process, his committee invited the public to suggest possible sites. Public nominations included, among others, the Underground Railroad, the Golden Fleece Tavern in Dover (where the Constitution was first ratified and earned us First State distinction), Fort Delaware, the Great Cypress Swamp, Delaware Route 9, and Carper’s favorite suggestion: an underwater national park off Cape Henlopen. Most suggestions fit a coastal theme, which the committee discovered to be unique and nationally relevant.

“Our country’s coastal heritage is not yet recognized anywhere” within existing units of the NPS, Soles says. The Delaware National Coastal Heritage Park concept, Soles says, has the potential to “combine every aspect of U.S. coastal development and evolution.”

After working with his committee and hearing scores of suggestions from the public, Soles can tick off a list of Delaware offerings in short order.


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