LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Of accessible ‘wilderness’ and the Delaware River

Those outside of the mid-Atlantic may know of the Delaware River as the river that George Washington crossed on Christmas night in 1776. In the centuries after that night, our state’s eponymous local river has served an essential supporting role to the countless major towns and cities it passes by, including Dover, Wilmington, Camden [N.J.], Trenton and Philadelphia.

Its watershed, spanning 15,000 square miles across five states, is homes to millions of people, provides vital habitats for a rich variety of wildlife and is critical to the economic wellbeing of the mid-Atlantic region. Beyond these more quantifiable benefits, the Delaware Watershed is an essential recreational asset to the urban communities that surround it. Home to the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area, six National Wildlife Refuges and the complex Delaware Estuary, the watershed’s wilderness can provide an invaluable escape from life in the nearby cities.

Yet, with this convenient proximity to urban centers has come grave costs. According to a recent report by the nonprofit group Environment New Jersey, our local river is now the fifth-most-polluted in the country. Government agencies continue to issue permits to our state’s burgeoning chemical and manufacturing industries that allow them to bypass the Clean Water Act and pollute freely in the Delaware River.

Research has shown that some of New Castle’s top industries also rank as some of the worst water polluters in the watershed: Amtrak’s heavy locomotive shops in Wilmington and the Standard Chlorine Metachem plant near Delaware City rank as the largest dischargers of PCB-laced wastewater in the nation. Our very own DuPont Company’s Chambers Works factory is legally permitted to emit over 5 million pounds of effluent into the watershed every year. The river water has become subject to dangerous toxins, unsanitary runoff and destructive chemical deposits that creep in unseen but gradually dirty the water and destroy the surrounding land.

While many of us grew up swimming in the Delaware, most children in New Castle County today know to avoid touching the river altogether.

It would seem that the Delaware Watershed’s proximity to urban centers has caused it to fall victim to not being considered as separate from them. In his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” noted environmental historian William Cronon defines this consideration of a separate “wilderness” as “an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness.” Cronon sees wilderness as an idea created by humans, constructed throughout time as a means for us to escape society and immerse ourselves in something completely separate from it. Wilderness is where we withhold our power to dominate, and let nature live as nature does. Yet, over time, the cities and industries that surround the Delaware River have come to see it less as a pristine escape from society than as a conveniently located waste dump.

Although William Cronon uses “wilderness” as a conceptual lens through which to criticize certain contemporary environmental protection movements, his definition of wilderness can actually be a productive means of reframing our cities’ relationship with the Delaware River. Making the short trip from our cities to the Delaware Watershed’s wilderness can give us an invaluable mental respite from our daily lives.

Hiking, fishing, rowing and other sustainable activities in and around the river are, and must continue to be, an essential part of growing up on the shores of the Delaware. We should capitalize on the Delaware Watershed’s singular proximity to so many major urban areas, and preserve its pristine wilderness as a convenient escape from them. Yet, when people and corporations fail to see the Delaware as an area of distinct “wilderness,” they allow themselves to contribute to its gradual destruction as both a home to wildlife and a recreational asset to the tens of millions of people who live nearby.

In the sea of cities that surround it, the Delaware Watershed has the potential to be an island of untouched and not wholly adulterated nature. Yet, it must first become a sanctuary protected by the nearby urban centers rather than victimized by them. As residents of these areas, we have the obligation to push our towns and cities to expand their efforts to curtail waste runoff and clean up the Delaware.

We must protest, lobby and persuade our local environmental regulation offices to more strictly enforce the Clean Water Act and join protection groups like the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed. In addition to enforcement, we must write and pass petitions in order to secure a fair share of federal investment to clean up the damage already done.

Last, and possibly most important, is that we educate Delawareans on their connection to the River. We must teach our children and our peers the value of wilderness and the priceless natural escape it gives us from the pressures of our daily lives, and encourage them to go out and responsibly appreciate it themselves.

Neel Puri
Dover

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