Will Delaware Get a National Park?

ByRandall Chase

D O V E R, Del., March 21, 2004 -- Despite a state slogan that boasts "It'sGood to be First," Delaware ranks dead last when it comes to theNational Park Service.

Delaware is the only state in the country that does not have anational park, national monument, national historic site or anyother unit of the National Park Service. That distinction mightcome as a surprise to travelers in the mid-Atlantic region who haveflocked to the state's beautiful beaches, parks and historic sitesfor generations.

U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper believes it's time the First State joinsthe rest of the nation.

"I've pretty much concluded that this is a road that we want togo down," said Carper, D-Del. "But I've not concluded to whatdestination."

Carper's staff conducted a Web-based survey and held a series ofworkshops across the state last fall to gauge interest in joiningthe national park system and to receive suggestions about whatDelaware has to offer.

Dolphins and Cobblestoned Streets

The suggestions include an underwater marine park off CapeHenlopen, where a popular state park known for its frequentdolphin-sightings already exists; Fort Delaware on Pea PatchIsland; the 353-year-old cobblestoned town of New Castle; and ahistoric site related to Caesar Rodney, one of the signers of theDeclaration of Independence.

At a workshop in Dover, Bonnie Johnson of the Dover HistoricalSociety proposed that The Green, a tiny downtown square laid out byWilliam Penn and lined with historic buildings and governmentoffices, would be a good addition to the national park system.

The Green was where Rodney, the Revolutionary War patriot, beganhis famous ride to Philadelphia to cast Delaware's vote forindependence in 1776. It was also the site of the long-gone GoldenFleece Tavern, where colonists gathered for the historic vote bywhich Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution. "I understand that the national park comes in all sizes andshapes," Johnson said. "I consider The Green to be ground zerofor Delaware's American history."

James Soles, a retired University of Delaware professor headinga citizens' research committee that will present findings toCarper, said "all of Delaware is ground zero for Americanhistory," but agreed with Johnson that size does not matter.

"There are national parks bigger than all of Delaware," Solesnoted.

Indeed.

The Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaskacovers more than 13 million acres, enough to accommodate a dozenDelawares.

Conversely, the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial inPhiladelphia covers a scant .02 acres, making The Green a virtualbehemoth.

Jane Hovington, head of Georgetown's volunteer parks andrecreation group, offered up a 52-acre tract currently designatedas a site for a local park.

Hovington noted that part of the Underground Railroad wentthrough Georgetown, which also is home to Return Day, a ritual,election-year burying of the hatchet by newly elected officials andtheir vanquished opponents.

"It would be a perfect spot for a national park," she said.

Infamous Prison Camp

A front-runner among Delaware's possibilities is Fort Delaware,site of an infamous prison camp where thousands of Confederatesoldiers died during the Civil War.

Such a site would not be out of line in the National ParkService, which includes the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia,where more than 12,000 Union soldiers died, as a National HistoricSite.

"All history isn't pretty," said Soles, who noted that everyfort in Delaware has been nominated by citizens as a possiblefederal park site.

One site that will not be on any list of finalists is the GreatCypress Swamp in Sussex County. Locals, apparently concerned aboutthe potential for hordes of visitors, were upset in the 1980s whenSen. Joseph Biden, at the request of environmentalists, proposed afeasibility study for including the swamp in the National ParkService system.

"I told people when we kicked this off that the one place wewill not be considering as a national park site is the GreatCypress Swamp," Carper said. "We don't want to get bogged downthere."

The National Park System consists of 387 units in more than adozen categories, including parks, battlefields, parkways,monuments, preserves, historic sites, memorials, cemeteries,recreation areas, rivers and seashores.

The park service has no role in the approval of an addition tothe system, a decision that is made by Congress. It does, however,establish criteria for national significance, suitability,feasibility and management alternatives.

"I don't think it's going to be an easy task to meet theNational Park Service's requirements," Soles said. "You have tobe able to make a very compelling case."

Site Approval Can Take Years

The process of getting a new NPS site approved and built oftentakes years. Government officials say the record for the quickestsite is likely the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania,which was dedicated Sept. 24, 2002, just over a year after ahijacked airliner plowed into the ground during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Gerry Gaumer, an NPS spokesman in Washington, said the abilityof lawmakers to persuade their colleagues in Congress can be a keyfactor in getting a site approved.

"A lot of it has to do with how good your congressionalrepresentatives are, how good a package you put together," hesaid. "There's a lot more to it than just a good idea."

Carper said he's up to the challenge and hopes to introducelegislation in the near future.

"With a really exciting concept that I and other Delawareanscan get juiced up about … I'm prepared to give this issue a gooddeal of my time and energy," he said.

Even if the political battle is won, money is an issue.

Gaumer noted that several sites approved by Congress have yet tobe included in the NPS system because land acquisition and privatefunding of other capital needs are incomplete. Those sites includeRonald Reagan's boyhood home in Illinois, memorials to DwightEisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr. and the John Adams family inWashington, and the Sand Creek Massacre site in Colorado.

Fortunately, perhaps, for a small state such as Delaware,potential visitation is not a factor for addition of a unit to theNational Park Service.

While the Blue Ridge Parkway received more than 21 millionvisitors in 2002, the Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, avolcanic crater in the Aleutian Mountains of Alaska, welcomed agrand total of 241 visitors.

If You Go...

NATIONAL PARKS: For a complete list of every national park sitein the country, visit http://www.nps.gov/ DELAWARE: Local attractions include Fort Delaware, CapeHenlopen, New Castle and The Green. For details, visitwww.visitdelaware.net/ or call (866) 2-VISITDE.

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