Our Marvelous State Parks

IMG_1508Amid a pretty crummy run of local news – worrisome changes at DuPont, cancellation of the Punkin’ Chunkin’, a struggling Blue Hen football squad – it can’t hurt to do some First State blessing counting. One such enduring bright spot is our world-class state park system, which recently was recognized with the National Gold Medal for Excellence.

Delaware’s state parks are indeed a national treasure, an asset that any country or state would covet. From Bellevue and Fox Point at the state’s northern tip across the rolling hills of the Brandywine Valley and rugged landscape of White Clay Creek, along the Delaware River and a Civil War fort, through marshy low country on to the coastal pine forests and glorious Atlantic beaches, the state parks showcase our small state’s extraordinary environmental and ecological diversity and trace its history. Beautifully maintained and expertly managed, these natural masterpieces provide venues for kayaking, fishing, rock climbing, horseback riding, bird watching, hunting, zip lining and even opportunities to encounter a rare Amur tiger.

Like many who came of age in the pre-internet (pre-cable TV, actually) era, the state and local parks were a staple of my early upbringing. Most weekends, my parents would force march their seven children around Brandywine Creek State Park where we dug for arrowheads surely left along the river’s banks by Lenape hunters and hopscotched the iconic stone wall that snakes its way throughout the 933-acre park, a vestige of its nineteenth century roots as a dairy farm.

Today, a large photograph of that wall taken by the photographer Chip Riegel, a Wilmington native, hangs in my home, and it never fails to elicit comment from friends who feel a similar nostalgic connection to the mysterious edifice.

Another renowned Delaware photographer, Lewes’ Kevin Fleming (no relation, alas), has also produced dazzling images of nature’s most private moments captured at the Cape Henlopen and Delaware Seashore parks.

Privacy is not exactly something one would expect to encounter in a public park, but these special preservations feel like the rare tranquil isles where one can truly be alone, unplugged from the nonstop communication of our modern world, disconnected from job and office. I suppose a hyper multi-tasker could do email or jot figures in a spreadsheet in our parks, but that kind of activity feels off-limits and inappropriate – against the rules, as bad as littering.

There is also something quintessentially egalitarian about parks. As Andy Warhol once quipped about Coca-Cola, no amount of money can get you a better Coke – or a better park experience. Every one of us from every background and economic status can access our parks for the same fundamental sense of enjoyment.

Government can be a convenient target for complaint, and as one who has made my share of critiques, it is important that the Division of Parks and Recreation and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) be congratulated for superb performance here. And Governor Markell’s deep interest in the park system – including knitting them together with a network of bike and hiking paths – has clearly been crucial in their continued flourishing.

Beyond just maintaining these venues in pristine fashion – and all of the sensitive and complex work that entails – parks officials and personnel have brought a farsighted vision to their growth and constant improvement. For example, recent years have brought us the phenomenal Gordon’s Pond and Assawoman Canal trails connecting Lewes and Rehoboth and New Castle Countians have been delighted by Alapocas Run’s dramatic cliffs and the promise of what’s planned around Auburn Heights.

As for value, these beautiful places can be enjoyed every day of the year.

In the very best traditions of American civic engagement, the caliber of our parks is enabled by legions of volunteer citizens – ‘friends of’ groups – from across the state who spend countless hours, raise important funds and bring specific talents to the management of these gems. This model of successful private-public collaboration is worth study by policymakers for application in other areas.

All of this has led to Delaware being only one of ten states to ever receive the prestigious national honor, the smallest state parks system to gain such recognition.

The state parks, and the significant quality of life and economic benefits they provide, will forever remain, thank goodness, entrusted only to us to cherish and preserve.

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