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Frank Gifford: Take the Maine road to a better WV

By By Frank Gifford
Frank Gifford
MATT KEARNS | Courtesy photo
The Middle Fork Williams River flows through Webster County.
MATT KEARNS | Courtesy photo
The Little Laurel overlook gives an excellent view of Monongahela National Forest.

As a long-time resident of Pocahontas County, I am part of a growing movement supporting the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument proposal. When three of us from local communities visited with the White House in May, we delivered more than 1,500 letters, postcards and handwritten notes asking the president to conserve one of the Mountain State’s most beautiful wild places, Birthplace of Rivers.

President Obama’s recent designation of a national monument in Maine should portend good news for West Virginia. In his statement about the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Obama cited reasons that align perfectly with efforts to establish the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument in the southern Monongahela National Forest.

The monument in Maine will preserve traditional forest uses like hunting, fishing, hiking and camping. Obama also noted that the national monument could boost the local tourism economy. This region of northern Maine has suffered economically from the loss of timber and mill jobs that aren’t coming back. For these reasons, the recently designated monument is broadly supported throughout that state.

Like rural Maine, Pocahontas and surrounding counties in West Virginia are facing economic changes that began decades ago. Tourism taxes support critical public services in Pocahontas County, including public health services and the award-winning local library system.

According to a recent economic study, Birthplace of Rivers National Monument would likely create a local impact of $14.5 million per year — and that is just from the marketing power of a national monument. That’s why more than 200 West Virginia businesses, the Pocahontas Convention & Visitors Bureau, local outfitters, others in the hospitality industry, and mayors of several surrounding communities want to see the next monument in our own backyard.

An unprecedented coalition of community leaders, businesses, elected officials and sportsmen has been built around our national monument proposal. In fact, West Virginians support Birthplace of Rivers at even higher percentages than the people of Maine supported Katahdin Woods and Waters. A statewide poll in 2014 shows that over 80 percent of West Virginians, across all political affiliations, support designating Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. In these politically fragmented times, agreement of that degree is rare indeed.

Our proposal aims to preserve this area and the traditional activities that contribute to our local culture and quality of life. The monument would permanently enshrine all of the traditional outdoor recreation treasured by local communities and people throughout the state. It would be managed by the U.S. Forest Service, just as it is today. As recent designations have shown, national monuments can safeguard access for hunting and fishing on National Forest lands, while encouraging sound management of fish and wildlife habitats. That’s why sportsmen have consistently supported the president’s monument designations.

Friends of the Monument will continue to push until this effort crosses the finish line. But the clock is ticking, especially for our economy. As President Obama looks to designate his next national monument, Friends of the Monument invites him to take a look at Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.

Learn more about the local effort to establish the monument at friendsofthemonument.org.

Frank Gifford, of Hillsboro, lives within a few miles of the proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument boundary.

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