In the 1930s, several cities along the Delaware River proposed the construction of the largest dam east of the Mississippi, at Tocks Island, upstream of the Delaware Water Gap. The dam would generate electricity for the growing cities of Philadelphia and New York, and the resulting 37-mile-long lake would provide water to their residents.
The project lay dormant for years, but a 1955 flood in the region renewed interest in the proposal, and led the government to start buying up land and seizing homeowners’ property in preparation for the dam’s construction.
In 1960, the Army Corps of Engineers completed the plans, and Congress approved the dam’s construction in 1962, after record drought hit the Delaware Valley. But over time, ardent protests from locals combined with funding challenges exacerbated by the Vietnam War led the federal government to table the project.
For decades, locals continued to fight for an official decision scrapping the proposal. Finally, in September 1965, Congress authorized the creation of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, marking the final step in what many consider an early victory for the environmental movement. The Tocks Island Dam was officially de-authorized in 1992.
Now, 80 years after the first threat posed to the area’s rolling hills and the meandering waters of the Delaware River, energy needs are once again threatening to leave a permanent scar.
The Delaware Water Gap could be the most popular national park you’ve never heard of. Playing host to more than 5 million people each year, it’s the eighth most visited unit of the National Park System, due in part to its proximity to several huge metropolitan areas.
Its mountain ridges and river valley contain streams, waterfalls, diverse plants and wildlife, and traces of past cultures, including significant American Indian artifacts and sites. Recreation opportunities abound: Forty miles of the middle Delaware River offer fishing, boating, canoeing and swimming, and access to hiking, biking, picnicking, hunting and auto touring.
But views throughout much of the park unit could change substantially if two energy companies get their way. Public Service Electric & Gas and PPL Electric Utilities are proposing a serious upgrade to a smaller power line that predates the park and winds its way through its southern half, crossing the river near the current visitor center.
Above the Canopy
Eighty-foot towers that only occasionally rise above the canopy of maple, ash and dogwood could soon be replaced by 200-foot towers that would dwarf them. A narrow right-of-way would expand to 300 feet to accommodate the two 500-kilovolt lines, which might require special lighting or bright orange balls for visibility. Asphalt roads would be constructed to provide constant access to what would become a main artery for coal- and nuclear-based power delivered to New York.
“This is the longest undammed river in the Eastern United States, and it offers a relatively rural and quiet pastoral experience for people floating down it, but these impacts would be dramatic,” says Delaware Water Gap Superintendent John Donahue. “You could potentially see the towers from all kinds of places in the park. In a cumulative sense, it’s not just this single project but everybody who says they ‘need’ to have a bridge or a road or a gas line through the park. If all of those groups were to get what they wanted, you might as well just de-authorize the park. People talk about death by a thousand cuts, this would be more of a gaping wound.”
Trail in the Way
Pam Underhill, superintendent of the Appalachian Trail, which traces a line through the recreation area, echoes those thoughts: “Unfortunately, the Appalachian Trail is in the way of every project that aims to go east to west -- this is one of five transmission lines on deck right now -- so the potential cumulative impact of these projects threatens to undo all the work that we’ve done to provide some sort of wilderness experience for people in this part of the country,” she says.
Underhill adds: “We recognize we can’t be the eastern United States’ version of the Great Wall of China; as society seeks to balance its needs, there are probably going to be several new projects that cross the trail. We just want to have a say in where and how these lines cross the trail, to minimize the impact and preserve the experience on the 2,100 miles stretching from Maine to Georgia.”
For obvious reasons, the power companies’ preferred alternative is to simply traverse the corridor already established in the park -- to cover the shortest distance between two points, and to remove the need to purchase privately owned land or claim eminent domain.
Some have suggested burying the power lines or using new technology that would increase the carrying capacity of transmission wires on the current towers, but those options are more expensive.
Of course, none of this is the park’s problem. Ultimately, the Park Service has the authority to grant the permits that would allow the utilities to expand the right of way and begin construction along the route. Recognizing that the decision is not entirely up to the park itself, PSE&G and PPL are already lobbying officials in Washington to bring pressure from the top down.
In three public meetings held in the region, nearly every participant opposed the transmission lines, and park staff received more than 6,500 comments from around the nation. (Members of the National Parks Conservation Association can sign up to receive ParkLines alerts and offer their thoughts in the ongoing process.)
“Floating the Delaware River through this region is an incredible experience,” says Bryan Faehner, NPCA’s associate director for park use. “It’s a beautiful river valley with bald eagles, black bears and other wildlife. To be paddling the river and see these enormous power lines in the distance, then float underneath them not only affects the scenery and the visual experience, but you would actually hear the buzz and crackling of the power lines themselves. The Park Service’s 2006 Management Policies call on park staff to not only protect the parks from unacceptable impacts but to make things better, so the idea that the agency would approve this project is a worst-case scenario that will embolden other energy companies across the country. Whatever unfolds at the Delaware Water Gap could have national implications that could be disastrous, and might put a lot of park land at threat.”
In recent years, park supporters helped nix proposals for power lines through the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and Minidoka National Historic Site, and around Joshua Tree National Park, but others are sure to follow. Several Civil War sites in the East already have power lines on adjacent land, making it nearly impossible to imagine the landscape 150 years ago.
‘Fountains of Inspiration’
“Every year, more than 5 million people come here to refresh their spirits in this chunk of 70,000 acres of forest and 40 miles of river -- a place where they can go to enjoy themselves, restore their spirits, and remember what it means to be a creature of the earth, says Donahue. “When I think about the potential threat we’re dealing with, I remember the words of John Muir, who said, ‘These preserves are not just fountains of timber and water, but fountains of inspiration for mankind.’”
(Scott Kirkwood is editor-in-chief of National Parks magazine, where this article originally ran. The opinions expressed are his own.)