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Opinion: Let’s make DWG recreation area a national park

Pennsylvania has 121 state parks, 19 national parks and seven national heritage areas.

Most of the national parks in the state are designated historical sites that offer walking trails and other outdoor activities as a way to experience the state’s natural beauty. They are not truly national parks as we envision one such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and others.

We have one national recreation area, and it is right in our backyard along one of the most pristine rivers east of the Mississippi.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is a 70,000-acre area stretching along both sides of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey from the Delaware Water Gap northward in New Jersey to the state line near Port Jervis, New York, and in Pennsylvania to the outskirts of Milford, the county seat of Pike County. The recreation area encompasses parts of Monroe, Northampton and Pike counties in Pennsylvania and Warren and Sussex counties in New Jersey.

Within this area, a 40-mile section of the Delaware has been granted protected status as the Middle Delaware National Scenic River under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and is administered by the National Park Service, which also is responsible for management of the recreation area.

After the devastating floods of August 1955 from the aftermath of back-to-back hurricanes Connie and Diane left more than 100 dead and millions in property damage, there was a public demand for flood control.

Thus was born the proposal to move forward with a major dam whose planning had begun before the 1955 flood but whose construction now took on more urgency.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed construction of the dam, which would have created a 37-mile-long lake between the two states with depths of up to 140 feet.

The proposal also called for the establishment of the Tocks Island National Recreation Area intended to be a wilderness area that featured hunting, camping, hiking, fishing, boating and other outdoor activities.

Starting more than six decades ago, the Army Corps of Engineers either purchased or acquired property through eminent domain. As many as 15,000 people were displaced in Smithfield and Middle Smithfield townships in Monroe County, Lehman and Porter townships in Pike County, and several townships in Warren and Sussex counties in New Jersey.

An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 buildings were acquired, some of them irreplaceable historical sites and structures connected with the Minisink Valley’s Native American and Colonial American heritages. Some of these were demolished to make way for the dam, which was never built because of strong public opposition from environmental and preservation groups, the lack of funding and concerns by the government that the dam might not be safe because of its location near fault lines.

The federal government officially abandoned the idea of the Tocks Island Dam in 1978. The original, much narrower recreation area project was then expanded to its present scope as the acquired lands were turned over to the National Park Service.

The Sierra Club and other preservationist groups are combining their efforts to urge the National Park Service to designate this national recreation area a national park, which would make it the largest by far of any in Pennsylvania and one of the largest in the East.

With more than 3 million visits annually, the recreation area already ranks high among national parks in terms of visitation and rivals attendance at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

A National Park status would afford more protection to the area. National recreation areas do not have quite the same level of protection. The designation would likely increase visitations, which can be viewed as a mixed blessing.

Most recreation areas are near large public reservoirs or rivers and their objectives are to facilitate water-based recreation activities. The objectives of national parks, on the other hand, involve natural and historical conservation.

Most national parks prevent hunting, but the Sierra Club proposes that hunting still be allowed after the national park designation at the same level as is currently allowed. At the same time, it would create a preserve within the park and continue, possibly expand, existing protections.

To change the designation from national recreation area to national park requires congressional approval. The Sierra Club has enlisted the aid of numerous environmental groups to urge local members of Congress to get on board with the proposal.

The recreation area offers spectacular views of the Delaware Water Gap. Included inside the area are breathtaking waterfalls, and a portion of the Appalachian Trail borders the recreation area, making it a magnet for hikers doing the trek along the 2,100-mile trail between Maine and Georgia.

If you have never visited the recreation area, you owe it to yourself to do so. This is a great time of year to do so, especially to experience the changing of the colors of the leaves.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.