Campaign presses on to name a Brandywine Valley national park

Posted: March 04, 2013

Pristine forests, rolling pastureland, scenic rock outcrops, a waterfall, a wealth of history.

And if a broad coalition of elected officials, community members, preservationists - and even Lenape tribal leaders - has its way, 1,100 unspoiled Brandywine Valley acres straddling the Pennsylvania-Delaware border will become part of the nation's next national park.

A two-pronged campaign is being waged on Capitol Hill and the White House.

Bills introduced two weeks ago, whose sponsors include Sen. Thomas Carper (D., Del.) and Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.), would designate several historic buildings and Delaware sites, along with acreage along the Brandywine, as the First State National Historical Park.

The White House route, however, might be the faster track. Under the Antiquities Act, President Obama has the power to make a national-monument designation outright, something he has done four times in the last two years, most recently in October for the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, in California.

"Delaware may be small, but our state has a big story to tell," said Carper, who has been lobbying for the Diamond State's first national park for a decade. It remains the only state among the 50 without one.

Carper has been pushing legislation since 2009, but in recent months the movement evidently has gained momentum. The big change: the inclusion of the Brandywine acres.

Elected officials, conservationists, civic groups including Wilmington's Latin American Community Center, and various other leaders have made the case in letters to the president and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

"It's a great opportunity to protect a spectacular property and an important resource along the Brandywine," said Blaine Phillips, Mid-Atlantic regional director of the Conservation Fund, a national land-preservation nonprofit. "It's also an opportunity to protect a resource of national importance." The fund took title to the property earlier this year with the intention of donating it to the park service or having it become a state park.

The First State National Historical Park would tell the story of Delaware's early Dutch and Swedish settlers, the place where William Penn landed, and the state's role in the birth of the nation.

The Brandywine acreage represents the legacy of the region's early movers and shakers, philanthropic industrialists who amassed great wealth but valued open space.

For a century, the acres - once owned by William Penn - had been preserved by Woodlawn Trustees, the brainchild of Quaker industrialist William Poole Bancroft, whose family fortune came from cotton mills. Founded by Bancroft in 1901, Woodlawn's stated mission was and remains supporting affordable housing for Wilmington workers, protecting open space for public enjoyment, and promoting responsible development.

With about 880 acres in Delaware and 220 in Delaware County, the Woodlawn property has long been a popular recreation spot with trails for hiking and horseback riding, and a venue for fishing, as the Lenape people did centuries ago. Its scenic beauty is evocative of the work of Andrew Wyeth.

After years of discussions about how to best preserve the property, the Conservation Fund last year agreed to purchase the land from Woodlawn, thanks to $20 million from Delaware's Mt. Cuba Center Inc., a conservation and horticultural nonprofit associated with the du Pont family.

In addition to the Woodlawn acres, other proposed components would include Fort Christina National Landmark, in Wilmington, and Old Swedes Church National Historic Landmark.

To Delawareans like Carper, there is also an equity issue: With 398 sites in the National Park System, doesn't the first state to sign the Constitution deserve one of its own?

Interior Department staff have testified in favor of the proposed park site before Senate and House hearings. The White House, however, declined to comment about what action the president would take. And while the park legislature has made progress since Carper's earliest bill was introduced, the senator blamed legislative gridlock on its not getting further. In recent weeks, the looming sequester, with budget-cut daggers aimed at federal agencies including parks, has put the brakes on much in Washington.

But optimism about the proposal remains.

"It's been a long time coming," said Phillips of the Conservation Fund. "We are confident that we are close to the finish line."


Contact Rita Giordano

at 610-313-8232, rgiordano@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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