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GREENVILLE, Del. -- When a standing-room-only crowd of more than 600 constituents flocked to a public meeting at a high school auditorium here last month, Sen. Tom Carper wasn't surprised.

That turnout, the Delaware Democrat later said, proves the point he's been making for years: Not only does Delaware need the First State National Historical Park -- it wants it.

The public meeting -- which featured Carper along with fellow Delaware Democrats Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. John Carney and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis -- came several months after legislation that would create the park was reported favorably out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and several years after Carper first proposed the idea of a national park in his state.

In fact, it has been more than a decade since Carper first started exploring the idea of setting up a national park within his state. Among the U.S. states and territories and the District of Columbia, Delaware alone doesn't have a National Park Service unit within its borders. Now, as the 112th Congress nears its end, the proposal, which has been introduced in the Senate as S. 323 and in the House as H.R. 624 by Carney, is gaining momentum, despite a federal budget crunch that has left several Park Service projects unfinished (Greenwire, Aug. 20).

"When people say to me, 'Why don't we have a national park in the state of Delaware?' one of the reasons is it is not an easy thing to do," he said.

In the last Congress, Carper introduced legislation that would have created a Delaware national park, but it never made it out of committee.

Carper does not expect that to happen this time around. Coons and Carney say the legislation will likely be brought for a floor vote in the House as part of a public lands package that features Rep. Doc Hastings' (R-Wash.) own pet project, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (H.R. 5987). Hastings is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the National Park Service.

Many of the audience members at Alexis I. du Pont High School's auditorium hope for as much. They spent the better part of an hour praising Carper and his efforts, taking turns to speak in favor of the proposal.

"It was remarkable to see a standing-room-only crowd," Carper said. "We've worked for more than a year and a half, and to know we have the support of the people was wonderful."

The initial cost of setting up the park is estimated at no more than $6 million, although Carper's office said it would likely be closer to $4 million because the sites would likely be co-owned with the state or other groups. Under Carper's proposal, the annual budget for operations and maintenance would be $550,000 to $600,000.

Even with these numbers, Carper insists the state will benefit from the project. National parks draw millions of visitors every year, he said, which in turn helps rev up the local economies. Parks also create local jobs, both seasonal and full-time.

NPS has supported both the Senate and House language while testifying before Congress, and Jarvis and his staff members have toured each of the proposed properties. During the meeting, Jarvis noted that NPS administers units in every territory and state "except one," drawing laughter from the audience.

"We're working to resolve that," he said.

Centuries-old sites

Officially, efforts to set up the proposed park started in 2009, just before President George W. Bush left office, when his administration finalized a NPS study that concluded Delaware deserved a national park.

But talk of a national park in the First State actually began back in the 1990s, when then-Sen. Joe Biden first toyed with the idea. After outcry from the hunting community, he backed off.

It wasn't until years later, after Carper took office, that the idea returned. He created a citizens group to discuss the potential park, and from that sprang ideas about what the theme of the park could be: early settlement, coastal heritage or a part of the famed Underground Railroad.

Then, in 2006, Congress passed legislation that commissioned NPS to conduct a special resources study. The study was completed in December 2008 and determined that Delaware, as the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, could become the home of a historical national park that focused on the founding of the country.

"Because of Delaware's long coastline that includes both the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean, and because of its strategic location as a mid-Atlantic state, its history has been rich and varied," the report said. "The history of early settlement in Delaware is unusual because it covers successive waves of Swedish, Dutch and English claims on the same landscapes."

After the review of several sites, eight were determined to fit into the theme: Fort Christina and the Old Swedes Church in Wilmington; the Old Sheriff's House and Old New Castle Courthouse in New Castle; the John Dickinson Plantation and Dover Green in Dover; and the Ryves Holt House in Lewes.

The sites themselves are something to behold, each dating back hundreds of years. The land on which the Old Sheriff's House and the Old New Castle Courthouse sit was designated by William Penn, the famous Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, to be a part of New Castle. The Ryves Holt House, dated to 1665, is believed to be the oldest surviving house in the state. And the plantation in Dover was once home to John Dickinson, a signer of the Constitution.

In Wilmington, Fort Christina, now a small park, was the first Swedish settlement in North America, built in 1638. Just around the corner sits the Old Swedes Church, the oldest Swedish church in the United States, which dates to 1699.

The Rev. Patricia Downing, who has led the congregation at Old Swedes since 2007, said its being considered as a NPS site had brought excitement to her congregation and others affiliated with the site.

"We have something important and beautiful that we want to share, that goes back several generations," she said. "There's a lot of excitement to bring some notice to that."

Another possibility

In February, nearly a year after Carper introduced language in the Senate that would set up a park, a new development came along. In conjunction with the Mount Cuba Center, a horticulture foundation in Delaware, a national group called the Conservation Fund announced plans to buy 1,100 acres in the Brandywine Valley just north of Wilmington. The group has one goal: to have the land be included in the proposed national park.

The land, called the Woodlawn Trust property, is lush, open space with a few residences dotting the property. It was once owned by a man named William Bancroft, who wanted the land to remain mostly undeveloped. Toward the south, it borders Brandywine State Park, where the distinction between the two is hardly noticeable.

But to the east, it is bordered by Route 202 and a swath of development. The difference is stark: The rolling green hills of the estate abut a busy highway, a shopping mall and a grocery store.

During the August public meeting, Blaine Phillips, the Conservation Fund's mid-Atlantic regional director, explained that the organization wants to make sure the land is protected, whether as a national park, a state park or a private reserve.

But national park status would give the area the most protection among the three options, he said. The fund wants to turn the land over to NPS by the end of year.

"It can almost be difficult to realize the significance of something when you're from there, and you almost need to step outside and get a different perspective," said Phillips, an area native. "I realized that this is something that deserves [national park] recognition, and we've got to do everything we can to give it that chance."

For now, the property is not a part of the proposed legislation. Different historical aspects, including early exploration and early settlement, have been studied to see how it could fit into the First State theme. Carper and Coons suggested an amendment could be added to the bill to include the Woodlawn property.

But at NPS, Jarvis has yet to recommend its addition to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. He said he wants to receive more feedback from the community first. But he did offer a third option for preservation. If the property is not included in the bill or the bill is not passed, President Obama could declare it a national monument, he said, which would put it under the Park Service's jurisdiction.

Chazz Salkin, Delaware's parks and recreation director, said the state had always planned for the Woodlawn property to eventually become a part of the Brandywine Creek State Park. After all, he said, Delaware's state parks are in better financial shape than others around the country. But now that the NPS deal is on the table, state officials are working with the federal agency to discuss management options between the two properties.

"Preservation is our first goal," he said.

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