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Delaware’s plan for National Park close to fruition

It was all talk and no official action, but Delaware’s three-man congressional delegation and the director of the National Park Service made clear Tuesday night that the First State is getting closer to becoming the Last State to have a national park within its borders, perhaps as soon as the end of the year.

More than 500 people packed the auditorium at Alexis I. du Pont High School in Greenville for the delegation’s progress report on creation of the First State National Historical Park, an idea championed for nearly a decade by Sen. Tom Carper.

Highlights from Delaware’s congressional delegation’s public progress report on the creation a National Park.

Highlights from Delaware’s congressional delegation’s public progress report on the creation a National Park.

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Delawares plan for National Park close to fruition

Carper originally proposed linking seven sites — Fort Christina and Old Swedes Church in Wilmington, the Old Sheriff’s House and the Old New Castle Courthouse in New Castle, the Dover Green, the John Dickinson Mansion in Kitts Hummock and the Ryves Holt House in Lewes — into a single historic park.

Then, in June, the Conservation Fund, a national preservation group, announced that it was purchasing more than 1,100 acres along the Brandywine from the Woodlawn Trustees in the hope of turning into a national park. The purchase includes 880 acres west of Concord Pike in Brandywine Hundred and another 220 acres in Delaware County, Pa.

At the time, it appeared that the Woodlawn and Delaware history sites might wind up competing for national park recognition, but now they are part of a single plan.

“What’s become apparent is that there is a connection, a historical connection between the original concept of early colonial settlement leading up to the ratification [of the Constitution] and this parcel of land and the things that have happened there over the past several hundred years,” said Sen. Carper “The question is ‘Can we put them together in one package or do we need to do them separately?’ At the end of the day, I think they work well as a package.”

Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, who brought a team of his advisers to the meeting, said the park service has determined that the Woodlawn property meets his agency’s standards for consideration as a national park and that its historic characteristics fit within the concept Carper developed for the First State National Historic Park. “There are a number of connections, including early settlement and early agricultural use,” as well as the Delaware-Pennsylvania border, drawn on the 12-mile arc from the New Castle Courthouse running through the property, Jarvis said.

There are two routes to placing properties under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, Carper and Jarvis said.

One is the traditional legislative route, which leads directly to designation as a national park. Carper and Rep. John Carney have introduced separate bills, which are now going through the legislative committee process.

The other route, Jarvis explained, is designation by the president as a “national monument” under the powers of the Antiquities Act of 1906. This process offers a faster track to federal protection, he said, but it would still be up to Congress to convert the national monument to a national park. Almost half of all national parks achieved the designation through this path, Carper said.

Jarvis said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had asked him to investigate whether to recommend to President Obama that he take this action, which could occur by the end of the year. He said he wants to hear more public reaction to the proposal before making a recommendation.

More than 20 members of the audience joined the discussion, some posing questions but almost all offering support of the proposal. Some of the speakers raised questions about how a change to federal ownership might impact current uses of the land — for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding, for example.

Jarvis indicated that park planners would work with state and local officials and the public to resolve such issues. “It is not our intent to limit public use [of the land] unless the use has significant impact on the resources” in the protected area, he said.

Some of the discussion focused on traffic, a longstanding concern in the Concord Pike corridor, and economic impact.

Jim Burnett, a traffic expert with RK&K Consulting and hired by the Conservation Fund, said he had made a comparison with four similar National Park Service properties in Greenbelt, Md., Valley Forge, Pa., Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and Great Falls, Va. Woodlawn now attracts about 140,000 visitors annually and designation as part of the national park system would likely add about 95,000 visitors a year.

Most of the additional traffic, about 120 more vehicles daily, would not occur during rush hours, he said. In a worst-case scenario, he said, there might be “nine or 10 more vehicles per hour on Ramsey and Creek roads,” near the Delaware-Pennsylvania border, he said.

Land protected by the National Park Service can become an engine for economic development, Jarvis said. “We have hard data showing at for every dollar invested in national parks, there is four dollars returned to the local economy,” he said. And, he added, “jobs created by the National Park Service are not exportable.”

Sam Hobbs of Greenville, describing himself as a seventh-generation Delawarean, urged the delegation to “do it now. Push for it as quickly as possible.”

“We’re going to push as hard as we know how to push,” Carper said.

The audience saved some of its biggest cheers for two speakers: Ann Rose, president of the board of managers of the Mt. Cuba Foundation, which has put up about $20 million to pay for the purchase of the land, and Gabe McKinney of near Bellefonte, a member of Boy Scout Troop 70, whose members have camped near and on the Brandywine for nearly 40 years. “Converting this area into a national park will prevent future development from destroying part of what is left of the natural historic Brandywine area,” he said.

Blaine Phillips, mid-Atlantic director for the Conservation Fund, told the audience that the purchase of the Woodlawn property would be completed by the end of the year, and that it could be turned over to the federal government promptly after that. If the national park plan does not go through, he said, the other options are to transfer the land to Delaware as a state park or keep it in private hands.

No matter what the outcome, “the property will be protected in perpetuity,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Charles Salkin, director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, said state officials have been working closely with the National Park Service on the effort.