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Antiquities Act of 1906 should bring national park

Harry Themal OpEd 9/3/12

A little-used law, the Antiquities Act of 1906, should finally allow Delaware to become the 50th and last state with a national park.

When President Obama invokes the act, probably before the election, the 1,100 acres known as the Woodlawn tract, east of the Brandywine, will be forever preserved under federal pro¬tection.

The law mentions “antiquities” because Congress originally enacted it to save en-dangered prehistoric Indian ruins and arti¬facts that were being looted in the Southwest.

Its language allows the president to reserve or accept any private lands for the “protection of historic and scientific interest.”

In the century since it was enacted, presidents have invoked it hundreds of times to save endangered tracts. Per¬haps its most dramatic use came in 2006 when President George W. Bush pro¬tected the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, now a World Heri¬tage Site. Those 140,000 square miles of islands, reefs and waters extend in the Pacific from Hawaii to Midway Island.

“Monument” is a technical word in the 1906 act. The U.S. today has 102 national monuments and 58 national parks, many of which were once monu¬ments. As we have heard repeatedly, none is in Delaware. In fact when the U.S. Mint started issuing coins pictur¬ing each state’s and territory’s national parks, it had to use Bombay Hook Na¬tional Wildlife Preserve as Delaware’s symbol on the quarter coming out in 2 015 .

Although Sen. Tom Carper still ex¬presses optimism that his bill to create the First State National Historic Park for all three counties will pass before the election, to wait for Congress these days is an exercise in futility.

As House Republicans became the No Party, and the two chambers of Con¬gress with their split political dom¬ination reached cloture stalemates, the White House looked for executive ac¬tions that can achieve results similar to what Congress has failed to achieve.

Among the most recent and important such presidential orders is the one al¬lowing the children of illegal immi¬grants to stave off deportation and continue their schooling and jobs.

The Conservation Fund, financed by the Mt. Cuba Foundation, is acquiring the unspoiled Woodlawn land in north¬ern New Castle County and Delaware County, Pa. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of applying the Antiquities Act to gain it federal monument status.

Although Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, said in a meeting last week he is looking to see if there is a “groundswell of support” for the idea, the standing-room-only turnout should leave no doubt.

Jarvis, whose agency would super¬vise Woodlawn as one of its units, will make a recommendation to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who has been sympathetic to Delaware’s needs. From there it’s just a step to a declaration by Obama, which, while nonpolitical, would certainly help endear the admini¬stration to Delaware voters.

When Carper and I talked about the plans, he made it a point to trace the history of efforts to get Delaware into the national park system. He noted that Vice President Joe Biden, when he was a senator, tried to get that designation for Big Cypress Swamp in Sussex but local objections stopped that idea.

In Carper’s first years in the Senate, he formed a group headed by the late University of Delaware professor Jim Soles, to come up with recommenda¬tions. That led to the linking of histori¬cal and cultural sites in the three coun¬ties, as described in Carper’s Senate bill and Rep. John Carney’s parallel legisla¬tion in the House.

Those bills, supported by the Nation¬al Park Service, have been approved by appropriate Congressional committees and await votes in both houses. Carper says similar legislation for other states will probably be combined in a single omnibus bill that would hopefully pass on a unanimous consent package. He warns that a single Congressman could block the bill even though it would just be a “modest expense” to taxpayers.

Carper says the immediate benefit would be in tourism, one of the state’s biggest potential growth industries. He points out that North Carolina, for ex¬ample, estimates it gains $700 million a year and historic Massachusetts $300 million, much of it from international tourism. 

Harry Themal has been writing a News Journal column since 1989.

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