DNREC policies at Cape state park need guardrails

May 23, 2023

Sen. Russ Huxtable and Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf are leading the legislative effort to provide additional guidance for DNREC in how to administer Cape Henlopen State Park. The legislation is Senate Bill 6, and on May 17 it was voted favorably out of the Senate committee on environment, energy and transportation. The legislation is bipartisan and has been endorsed by additional senators and representatives from all three counties. Sen. Pettyjohn and Reps. Parker Selby, Harris and Hilovsky are also primary sponsors, while co-sponsors include Sens. Hansen, Hocker, Lawson, Sokola and Townsend, as well as Reps. Baumbach, Gray, Heffernan and Phillips.

In 1979, the General Assembly established three purposes for the park: “public recreation, conservation and/or nature education.” DNREC, in its capacity as trustee of the Warner Grant Trust Lands at Cape Henlopen State Park, must strike a balance between using the lands and preserving a sensitive and historic landscape.

Nearly 2 million visitors entered the park last year, most engaging in outdoor recreational activities that enable them to experience nature. Swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, biking, kayaking, touring Fort Miles and simply playing in a non-commercialized setting are more popular than ever. Existing businesses and partnerships that support these activities would continue to provide their services under the new legislation.

SB 6 establishes clearer guidelines for how DNREC should administer the park, guidelines that more clearly articulate the importance of preserving this 341-year-old treasure of Delaware’s heritage. As Schwartzkopf recently stated, the legislation establishes guardrails to prevent DNREC from pursuing uses that endanger wildlife, ecosystems, the dunes, the nighttime sky and conservation efforts more generally. 

There can be no doubt that DNREC is committed to conservation, but at times its zeal for generating new revenue for the park system may tip the use/preservation balance too far in one direction. Such was the case last year when it considered opening a bar/restaurant on the dunes at the main beach. Future, unrevealed plans proposed locating high-end (glamping) campsites nearby. What might be next?

Reminding everyone that the General Assembly wants to preserve this rare corner of Delaware for current and future generations is not an overreaction to last year’s controversy over the proposed restaurant, as DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin claimed during the Senate hearing. After 44 years, it is time to revisit the legislation that honors the Warner Grant and makes Cape Henlopen State Park different from all others in the state system. While the department chafes at the suggestion it needs additional guidance, the fact that this legislation has already garnered such broad and bipartisan support in the General Assembly should hearten the approximately 1,000 people who attended December’s public meeting at Cape Henlopen High School hoping to Preserve Our Park.

Joseph A. Pika


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