CAPE MAY — The Delaware River is the most complete river in the East that is protected by the National Wild and Scenic River program, according to author Tim Palmer.
“It is protected almost from its source in the mountains of New York to its tideline at Trenton,” Palmer said. “That’s very unusual. Most are protected for shorter lengths and remote areas.”
His new book is “Wild and Scenic Rivers: An American Legacy,” and he will be the keynote speaker at the sixth annual Delaware River Watershed Forum at the Grand Hotel on Sept. 25 and 26.
The forum, run by the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, brings together people interested in the health of the water system that spans parts of New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York. It will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
“The quality and flow of the river are extremely important as a drinking water supply,” said Palmer, as the Delaware River Basin provides 15 million people with drinking water. That’s about 5 percent of the U.S. population. It has many rural areas and two major metropolitan cities within it: New York City and Philadelphia.
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It is also home to dozens of fish and wildlife species, including the breeding grounds for the largest population of American horseshoe crabs in the world. The basin is in the Atlantic Flyway and provides habitat and food for more than 250 species of migrating birds.
Upper parts of the river gained protection to keep their recreational, scenic and cultural values strong by joining the program in 1978. The lower parts joined the program in 2000.
In the 1960s, a movement had gained strength to dam the upper Delaware for flood control, hydroelectric power and a drinking supply for New York City and Philadelphia. Called the Tocks Island Dam project, the federal government dam was to lie just north of the Delaware River Gap between northern New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to create a 37-mile-long lake. It bought up 72,000 acres, often by eminent domain, angering residents who didn’t want to lose their homes.
“But after (the dam) was authorized, attitudes changed,” Palmer said.
Locals and their supporters, including former Gov. William Cahill, opposed the project and ultimately the river was added to the Wild and Scenic program, said Palmer, “meaning they cannot dam it.”
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Since then, federal officials have worked with locals to manage the river and protect it. The land purchased by the federal government is now the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
“Now it’s the only main-stem river in the East that is undammed throughout,” he said.
The author and photographer of 26 books about rivers, the environment and adventure travel has been involved in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system almost since its founding, he said. In the 1970s, he was a county planner in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and since 1980 he has been an author, photographer and environmentalist focused on rivers.
The Great Egg Harbor River, which empties into the Great Egg Harbor Bay at the southern border of Atlantic County, recently celebrated its 25th year in the Wild and Scenic program.
Palmer is currently an associate at Penn State University’s Riparian Center and a visiting scholar at Portland State University. He is married to Ann Vileisis, author of “Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America’s Wetlands” and “Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back.” They traveled and lived out of their van for 11 years, and now live part time in a home on the Pacific coast, according to his website, timpalmer.org.