As many as 20 new river campsites, improved facilities, and the implementation of a reservation and fee system for river campsites are among the goals of a new Visitor Use Management Plan for the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
The 146-page proposal, which was released earlier this year with public input closing on Dec. 6, includes a bevy of possibilities, like the development of a new river access on the New Jersey side.
Officials want to construct up to 20 new river campsites, develop picnic sites to accommodate large parties and improve the trail system by linking trail networks, enhancing accessibility, and providing universal access at critical locations.
However, the most significant part of the plan is the implementation of an entrance fee system to enter the park.
"Revenue generated from entrance fees would be used to provide enhanced visitor services, protect park resources, and reduce deferred maintenance in the recreation area," said Kathleen Sandt, the public information officer for the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
While there’s currently no entry fees, the park does charge an amenity fee at six different locations with a cost of $10 for cars and $45 for an annual pass. The six locations where amenity fees are charged are beaches and boat launches and one picnic area. Those fees would no longer be charged if an entrance fee is implemented. Reservations would not be required to use those sites. The reservations and $16 fee would be only for river campsites and would be in addition to an entrance fee.
The proposed entrance fee would be $25 per vehicle, $20 for motorcycles, and $15 per person for a 7-day pass or $45 for an annual pass.
Sandt said all visitors – including local residents – would be required to pay entrance fees. Parkwide, the fees would help balance the use across fee and non-fee sites, reduce impacts to resources in sensitive areas, and generate revenue to enhance park operations and improve visitor services, she said.
"The entrance fee amounts and length of stay are not determined by individual parks but rather are determined by the NPS on the national level," Sandt said.
Rather than adding new entrance stations, the park would collect entrance fees using both physical passes, which would be sold in the park and at local businesses, and digital or electronic passes that could be purchased online and used through mobile devices or transponders.
Under the proposal, officials said they’d consider reopening entrance stations and fee booths on Route 209 to provide visitor information and fee collection.
Sandt said the park would not add gates or close roads in relation to fee collection.
Part of the National Park Service, the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area starts just south of Milford, Pa., and includes parts of Monroe, Pike, and Northampton counties.
The sprawling park, where the Appalachian Trail runs along much of the eastern boundary, also includes parts of Warren and Sussex counties in New Jersey.
Its proximity to New York – about a 90 minute drive – and Philadelphia – about 2 hours – helps to make it a hotbed for tourists.
Reportedly the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area receives as many as 3.5 million visitors each year. With the improvements and even the proposed fees, many expect those numbers to either remain the same or increase.
"We can't speculate on future visitation numbers, but our employees in the field have been seeing more and more people coming to more and more different sites in the park consistently," Sandt stated.
"Areas that never saw more than a handful of visitors on a summer weekend day a few years ago are now filling to capacity by 10 or 11 in the morning on any given summer weekend," she noted.
As an example, this year's July 4 weekend saw every developed site filled by 11 a.m. each day.
That left crowds of visitors looking for any nook available regardless of whether it had proper facilities or caused damage to resources, Sandt said.
Strategies laid out in the draft plan will provide increased access to recreational opportunities for visitors while still protecting park resources.
Better facilities and more recreational options could attract more visitors to the area, Sandt said.
The draft plan calls for restoring up to 20 river campsites that were lost to flooding in the mid-2000's, improving human waste management at river sites, and instituting a fee and reservation system to use the sites.
The fee would be $16 per night and would be in addition to an entrance fee.
"There is currently more demand for river campsites than there are sites, which often leads to competition for available locations among visitors and illegal camping when a site can't be found," Sandt stated.
"These illegal campsites damage natural and cultural resources and cause human waste and trash issues along the river. Because sites are currently first-come, first-served, we often see visitors pulling in off of the river and setting up camp earlier and earlier in the day so as not to miss out on a site or on the site where they want to camp.”
"This means that people are in the area for much longer, often preparing multiple meals. This results in more trash and human waste and in more vegetation being trampled and soil compacted.
“Forested campsites have become barren patches of land as a result. This leads to increased runoff and erosion, which impacts both the site itself and the water quality of the river."
As public comments close, Sandt said the implementation and completion of plans depends a lot on the volume and substance of the comments.
However, the current goal is to have the Visitor Use Management Plan finalized, signed, and released in May.
Implementation timelines for the strategies outlined in the plan fall into short-term (up to 5 years), mid-term (5-10 years), and long-term (10+ years) categories and are all dependent on the availability of funding, Sandt stated.
"A fee implementation plan would be developed once we know if we are moving forward with that strategy and have gathered and reviewed all of the public input on the topic. That plan would include the details on how, where, when. It would not be implemented immediately," she said.
It's important that everyone look at the draft plan and other materials found on the park planning website and provide comments through the official designated channels so that they can be captured in the official record and used in the decision-making process, Sandt noted.
"The more specific and detailed people can be, the better," she said.
To comment, or for more information, visit www.parkplanning.nps.gov