Do we really want the Delaware Water Gap to be a national park?

Of course I understand why a national park in New Jersey—as is being proposed, again, for the Delaware Water Gap by the New Jersey and Pennsylvania chapters of the Sierra Club, among others—would be cool. Our national park system is one of this country’s foremost achievements, and is certainly one of the most (if not the most) popular government programs in the U.S.

Turning the stunning Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area into a national park would bring the millions of New Jerseyans and residents in surrounding states closer to one of these landmarks—our closest options now are in Ohio, West Virginia and Maine. And, there’s prestige in the national park designation, which the Delaware Water Gap undoubtedly deserves.

As John Donahue, who was superintendent of the area for over a decade, recently told NJ Spotlight: “You hear people say they want to visit every national park. … You don’t hear people say they want to visit every recreation area.”

Advocates of the upgraded national park status further said it’ll open new pools of revenue for improvements in the park and will further environmental justice by bringing more people closer to a national park.

It’s a well-intentioned proposal, but you know what they say about good intentions. 

The National Park Service (NPS) has close to $12 billion in deferred maintenance on roads, structures and other critical facilities under its care, according to agency data from 2018, the last year it was available. And while the Biden administration’s recently proposed budget pegs $3.5 billion for the NPS, much of that funding is allocated to specific projects; less than $1 billion would go to fixing the maintenance backlog. It also, you know, has to pass without getting ransacked.

Now, there’s also the Great American Outdoors Act, which passed last year and will send $1.9 billion per year for five years to address the deferred maintenance (hey, thanks, Trump). The money comes from continued energy and fossil fuel development (oh, thanks, Trump).

It’s an icky, robbing-Peter way of funding our national parks, which maybe we’ll just have to swallow given the pressing, growing need for infrastructure repairs. The thing here is, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area’s most critical infrastructure need—crumbling route 209—was recently selected for funding under this program, without the “national park” designation.

And data indicates people aren’t passing on the Delaware Water Gap because it’s not a national park—about 4 million people go annually, about as much as NPS crown jewels like Yosemite and Yellowstone. 

Now, one would logically think, as Donahue alluded to, that more people would come to the Delaware Water Gap if it achieved national park status—it’d be one of only 64 national parks, boosting its profile. And though I doubt the extra people coming in would exacerbate significantly any environmental degradation, local traffic issues or maintenance problems… it wouldn’t help, either. The point is: enough people know of it, love it and support it without the national park status, and the issues it could create might outweigh any gains.

Those issues: entry fees, crowds and nature taming.

Take Yellowstone, which is aggressively managed. That’s by necessity—people fall into thermal pools (and cook chicken in them), stand too close to bison and would definitely walk into a geyser if boardwalks, guardrails and paths weren’t diligently maintained. One of the wonderful things about the 70,000 acres of the Delaware Water Gap is that you can get lost in them. You can hike miles without seeing people. You can be with nature.

Would national park status eliminate that freedom? Maybe not noticeably, certainly not at first—you can get lost in Big Bend, Grand Teton or Joshua Tree fairly easily, after all. But I think about sprawling Rocky Mountain National Park, and how, by design, it drives people to certain places in the park, and at times feels like you’re in a nature-themed amusement park. Of course you can find places to get lost, but it’s harder.

Plus, it becomes harder if you have to pay a high fee to get in. Higher fees means fewer visits, unless you buy a higher-priced season pass. And so, for instance, if you get the idea to go for a short hike one weekend, there’s a new obstacle that might keep you home: perhaps $30 per vehicle to enter.

Almost every national park sells a daily or weekly vehicle pass for $30 or more, while the Delaware Water Gap is free to enter (with select areas requiring about a $10 fee). What’s one way the national park designation brings in more money? Entrance fees. That’s us paying to access nature we’ve grown up loving just because they changed the last part of the area’s name.

And, certainly, if you want to talk about environmental justice, we ought to talk about what putting a fee on nature would mean for lower-income folks and where they decide to recreate… or if they decide to recreate at all.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, maybe they’d work something out where the fee was lower for locals, or not instituted at all. Maybe it’d be subsidized for certain communities. In fact, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself with all of this—the previous effort to make the Delaware Water Gap a national park failed, in part because people still wanted to hunt there (there’s another revenue source). 

So, again, although I appreciate the thought, I’m inclined to say, let’s let it be, and if we care about getting more people to the Delaware Water Gap and funding it, let’s do that ourselves.