It’s official: Delaware’s state parks system is the best in the nation.
During a Sept. 15 ceremony in Las Vegas, The American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration, in partnership with the National Recreation and Park Association, announced Delaware Natural Resources and Environmental Control's Division of Parks and Recreation has won the 2016 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management in the state parks system category.
“We’re pretty thrilled,” said Ray Bivens, division director, Sept. 21. “This is the only award for state parks on a national level.”
The NRPA gold medal has been awarded every other year since 1997. Delaware is the 10th state to win it, and by far the smallest state parks system among the winners, said Bivens. Other winners include Florida (three times), Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Tennessee.
This year, Delaware State Parks was up against state parks systems in Wyoming, Georgia and Missouri.
Bivens attended the awards ceremony, but, he said, he was only giving the state a 10 percent chance at winning the award, because this was the first time the state’s parks and recreation staff undertook the process of applying for the award. For Bivens, the application was a way to show off the employees and volunteers associated with the program.
“This has been a hard thing to sit on for a week,” said Bivens. “I’m confident we do a great job, but I really didn’t expect to win on our first try.”
Gov. Jack Markell said the state’s parks have a significant impact on the quality of life for Delawareans and visitors by providing opportunities to be active, explore nature and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors.
“This is a tremendous honor, and I commend the staff of the Division of Parks and Recreation, along with the many volunteers throughout our state, for their commitment to continually improving our parks and all they offer,” said Markell in a prepared statement.
Bivens said a governor who supports the program as strongly as Markell does is key to the park program's success. He said Markell has supported the parks since he was state treasurer, and his wife, Carla, is also a big supporter.
“He and his family have given us unprecedented amounts of support,” said Bivens.
DNREC Secretary David Small said he hears every day how special the state parks are for everyone.
“We have always known that the amenities, experiences and landscapes that our state parks provide are world-class, and now this is recognized nationally,” said Small in a prepared statement.
Bivens said he was not informed of specific qualifications that set Delaware State Parks apart from other competitors, but he noted the diversity and quality of the amenities are on par with much larger states. Amenities include Cape Henlopen State Park and Delaware Seashore State Park, a waterpark, Brandywine Zoo, two golf courses, two marinas and a Civil War fort, among others.
Bivens said volunteer support in Delaware equals that of other, much larger states. He said volunteers work 100,000 hours a year, which is the equivalent of more than 50 employees.
Other qualifications that Bivens said may have put Delaware State Parks on top include the division’s focus on strategic sites and trails, including the Gordons Pond and Assawoman Canal trails in Sussex County, Auburn Heights State Park and Fort DuPont State Park.
Bivens said he hopes the national recognition leads to additional funding and a boost in tourism for Delaware.