Filmmaker Ken Burns, whose documentary on national parks made him a popular advocate for their protection, pledged Thursday to "do whatever I can" to help Delaware finally get a park of its own.
"It's quite shameful that the First State has to be the last state to have a national park," Burns said.
Burns visited the Old New Castle Court House to support a decade-old proposal to create a national park in Delaware. Every other state and U.S. territory has at least one of the nation's nearly 400 national parks.
"It's a gift we have to give to posterity," Burns told an audience of political leaders and history buffs.
Burns, who lived in Newark as a child while his father taught anthropology at the University of Delaware, received the Delaware Historical Society's History Makers Award on Thursday night at the Center on the Riverfront.
Burns is best known for several documentary films shown on PBS, including "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., has pushed the idea of creating a national park in Delaware that would focus on its Dutch and Swedish settlements in the 1600s and its role as the first state to ratify the Constitution.
Carper and Rep. John Carney, D-Del., introduced identical bills in February. Both are being reviewed by legislative committees.
They are among dozens of bills introduced each year that would create national parks. Congressional leaders have said they are reluctant to add parks because of a $7 billion to $9 billion backlog of maintenance projects at the nation's parks.
The state has several well-preserved sites that tell a piece of the nation's early history, "a story that needs to be told," Carper said.
Carper also argues that the state needs the economic benefit of tourism, since many travelers put national parks on their itineraries because they're well-maintained and many offer free admission. Visitors to national parks contribute tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars to every state's economy except Delaware's, he said.
It's also a matter of pride, because Delaware is the only state without a park, Carper said.
In 2008, the National Park Service studied Carper's proposal, which then included all of the New Castle and Lewes historic districts. The study concluded a park made sense here, but critics balked at the scope of Carper's proposal because it included private property and sites with little historic significance.
Under the current proposal, the New Castle Court House would serve as the headquarters of the park in Delaware, said Collin O'Mara, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
"As we sit in these pews and think about who sat in them before, we begin to understand the strength of our country," Burns told the audience there.
The park also would include Fort Christina State Park and Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church in Wilmington; the Green in Dover; John Dickinson Plantation southeast of Dover; and the Ryves Holt House in Lewes.
Burns said Delaware's park sites -- like the national park system itself -- would be "like jewels strung along a necklace."
Burns clarified that the park system is the nation's best idea since its founding. Its very best idea came before the founders declared independence from England, that everyone has the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he said.
"The key word is pursuit," Burns said, and national parks are integral to that pursuit by offering "spiritual replenishment" to everyone who visits them.
The national park system traces its origin to 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill setting aside land in California that would become Yosemite National Park.
Through the late 1800s, the nation continued to set aside land in response to concerns that every forest, river, waterfall and mountain would be exploited by the growing country's demand for natural resources, Burns said.
As the park system grew, people realized they could add the artifacts of early civilization, then battlefields, historic homes and sites of important events. They were the "markers and signposts" of history, Burns said.
Americans began to understand that history isn't perfect, he said, so they set aside sites featuring slave cabins, Indian massacres and battles over racial segregation.
"We've been able to drink in our entire history, good and bad," Burns said.
Burns said the nation is divided along a variety of lines -- political, religious, racial, ethnic and others. But national parks are a shared asset that reflect the common history of everyone, he said.
"Despite the lack of civility, history is still the table around which we can agree to cohere," Burns said.
O'Mara said his ancestors fled Ireland after the Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, settled in the United States and became citizens by fighting in the Civil War. He said he remembers watching Burns' "Civil War" series and considers himself part of the "Ken Burns generation," which learned history through his documentary films, rather than through books.
One of the people who greeted Burns was Teresa Ford, of Lewes, who was Burns' childhood friend and classmate at West Park Elementary School in Newark. Once Ford told him her maiden name, Pritchett, Burns instantly recognized her and gave her a hug.
Outside the Court House, Burns signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans. One of them was O'Mara, who got Burns to autograph his videos of "Baseball" and "The National Parks."
The Push for a National Park in DelawareFilmmaker Ken Burns visits Delaware to offer his support
Currently, the legislation is in committee in both the U.S. Senate and House. Carper concedes there is still a long road ahead but he is optimistic this version of the bill will be successful, unlike the bill he introduced in the last session of Congress which stalled in committee.
“We’re working very hard. We have the support of [Senator] Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), chair of the relevant committee and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) the ranking Republican—and they’re going to try and help us get it done,” said Carper.
If approved, the key points in the Delaware National Park will consist of the following sites:
New Castle County
- Sheriff’s House in Historic New Castle
- Fort Christina National Historic Landmark
- Old Swedes Church National Historic Landmark
- New Castle Court House Museum
- John Dickinson Plantation National Historic Landmark.
- Dover Green
- Ryves Holt House
“This is a state that’s rich in history,” said Carper. “It’s a story that needs to be told. It’s a story we’re going to tell.”
Burns is in Delaware to receive 2011 History Makers Award from the Delaware Historical Society Thursday night.