Op-Eds

Each year, millions of people visit America's national parks, from Independence Hall in Pennsylvania to Yosemite in California. National parks reflect America's diversity -- from small, historic landmarks to sprawling natural wonders. These parks help tell America's story, while contributing to the many local economies.

Amazingly one state's story is missing -- Delaware, the First State! This week, an important next step toward addressing this omission has been taken. Legislation to create a National Park in Delaware has been approved by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and will next move to the full Senate for consideration.

As you may know, Delaware is called the First State because it was the first state to ratify the Constitution, in 1787. Delaware is also the place where the first Swedish and Finnish settlers came ashore in America. Delaware literally helped launch the most enduring experiment in democracy the world has ever known -- the United States of America. Yet, in spite of this role in the early settlement and founding of our nation leading up to the ratification of the Constitution, Delaware remains the only state without a national park.

The lack of a national park is a loss for our state and nation. Not only is an important story of our nation's history left untold, but Delaware is missing out on a significant economic opportunity. National parks play an important role in the local economy. Tourism is a major component of many state economies, including Delaware's.

In 2009 alone, each state with a national park received a minimum of $1.1 million in direct economic benefits from park tourism, with many states receiving much more. Even Rhode Island -- the only state smaller than Delaware -- has one national park, which received over 50,000 visitors and generated $2.9 million in economic benefits in 2009.

To tell Delaware's important story and ensure that our state doesn't continue to lose out on millions of dollars in economic benefits, I introduced legislation earlier this year along with Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. John Carney to create a national park.

It's called The First State National Historical Park Act of 2011. Delaware's park, if approved, would finally allow our state to tell its story on the national stage. The national park would celebrate early American Dutch, Swedish and English settlements in Delaware, as well as Delaware's role in the events preceding the signing of the Constitution.

What would Delaware's park look like? Let me take you on a quick tour. It would be made up of six sites in all three counties. I like to think of these sites as pearls on a necklace each connected by the theme of early settlement to first statehood. In Wilmington, Fort Christina and the Old Swedes Church tell the story of the first Swedish and Finnish settlers in America, who settled along the Christina River in 1638. Here, visitors can explore the Rocks where settlers first stepped onto Delaware's shore or visit the oldest church in America still used for worship. They could also go for a sail on the Kalmar Nyckel, which was one of the first colonial ships to bring settlers to the New World in 1638, from ports of call in New Castle or Sussex County.

In the town of New Castle, future visitors can find the Old Sheriff's House -- the park's headquarters -- and the Old New Castle Courthouse. These sites are a stone's throw from a statue of William Penn, who deeded the land to New Castle's inhabitants in 1704. It's also home to one of Delaware's earliest settlements and several Delawareans that played an important role in American independence -- Thomas McKean and George Read -- two signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Kent County's sites offer a picture of Delaware's role in the creation of our government over 200 years ago. The John Dickinson Plantation in Dover was home to John Dickinson, known as the "penman of the Revolution." His writings helped to inspire colonial opposition to Great Britain. Dickinson was also a member of the Colonial Congresses that wrote the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution. At the Dover Green, future visitors will learn about the days of debates at the Golden Fleece Tavern that led to Delaware becoming the first state to ratify the Constitution. They will also learn about Dover native Caesar Rodney, who famously rode from Dover to Philadelphia to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of our nation's independence.

Finally, the Ryves Holt House in Lewes is one of the oldest homes in America. Visitors there will be able to learn about the first settlers who built it and their ill-fated settlement that illustrates the difficulties of life as an early settler.

As you can see, Delaware's national park will share our state's unique stories and better preserve our history. We crafted the park to ensure a small federal footprint and low cost to taxpayers. In fact, the National Park Service estimates that our park would be one of the least expensive in the country. What the park will not do is limit Delaware beach access in any way, nor will it allow the federal government to control any Delaware town. Most sites, if not all, will have a cooperative use agreement between current owners and the federal government, which will help keep park costs low.

I have also pledged to find savings from existing federal funds to pay for the cost of the park, incurring no new costs for taxpayers.

Given those facts, I believe Delaware and the nation stand to benefit significantly from this national park.

Last year, the genius of our national park system was captured in the documentary, "The National Park System: America's Best Idea," by filmmaker Ken Burns, who grew up in Delaware. I share Burns' belief that national parks are one of America's best ideas and I was thrilled when, earlier this year, he joined me, Rep. Carney, and other local leaders to call for a Delaware national park.

I hope your voice will join ours, too, so Delaware can finally tell its part of America's story.