FAYETTEVILLE — Recently introduced legislation that would elevate West Virginia’s New River Gorge status from national river to national park and preserve drew a standing-room-only crowd to Canyon Rim Visitor Center on Wednesday to ask questions and voice opinions about the proposal.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced a bill late last month that would re-brand the 78,808-acre National Park Service unit in an effort to draw more visitors to Southern West Virginia and spur the region’s economy.
Manchin and Capito led Wednesday’s meeting, joined by Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., who introduced a companion bill in the House last Friday, co-sponsored by fellow Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney, both R-W.Va.
Since the public associates a national park designation with quality outdoor experiences, “a growing number of people are planning their vacations around visits to national parks,” Capito told the 150 or so people crammed into the visitor center’s 90-seat auditorium.
She went on to cite a 2018 study of eight former national monuments that were elevated to national park status, which showed that, on average, the parks’ visitation numbers gradually increased 21 percent in the five years following redesignation.
Until redesignation takes place, “We won’t know for certain if we’ll get that kind of growth here,” Manchin said, “but even if we only get 10 percent more visitors, that would be a tremendous shot in the arm for the area.”
Manchin and Capito said a proposal last year to redesignate the Gorge as a national park never got off the ground, since hunting is not allowed in national parks, as it is at the New River Gorge National River.
By rebranding the Gorge as a national park and preserve, “it preserves the [hunting] culture we have now and also gives us national park status” and its associated increase in visitation and economic vitality, Manchin said. “To me, that’s the best of two worlds.”
Under the proposal, 7,961 acres would be designated national park land and include areas with the Gorge’s most spectacular scenery and historic importance. It includes the town of Thurmond, the former state park property at Grandview, the New River’s largest waterfall, at Sandstone Falls, the Lower Gorge, stretching from the Nuttalburg townsite in the south, past the New River Gorge Bridge to Hawks Nest Dam.
While hunting has taken place in most of the park since its creation 41 years ago, it has not been allowed at Grandview, a former state park, the town of Thurmond, or in the immediate vicinity of heavily visited sites like Sandstone Falls or the Gorge’s two visitor centers.
However, the Lower Gorge national park segment now proposed would withdraw more than 4,300 acres currently available to hunters. While the terrain in that section of the canyon might be steep and difficult to hunt, several hunters speaking at Wednesday’s meeting said the Lower Gorge has been a traditional hunting ground for local residents for generations.
“Why stop hunting in that part of the Gorge now?” asked fishing guide Robert Seay. “Hunters aren’t bothering anyone. Keeping hunters out of there is not going to benefit local businesses or local people.”
“We will take another look at the 4,300 acres and see if some adjustments can be made,” Capito said, after observing that about 65,000 acres would be available to hunters in the preserve component of a redesignated park under current plans.
“I think we can make adjustments to accommodate almost everyone,” Manchin said.
He called for a show-of-hands vote on whether “you think we’re headed in the right direction with this bill.” Those favoring the plan were in a clear majority.
“We have a window of opportunity now to get this done,” Capito said, “but we want to do it right.”
Others speaking at the meeting voiced concern about whether whitewater outfitting regulations or fees would change if the redesignation is approved. Capito said the bill authorizing the change specifically states that whitewater outfitters and fishing guides, now regulated by the state, would continue to operate as they did the day before the bill would take effect.
Fishing regulations for the public would remain the same in both the national park and national preserve sections of the Gorge, she said.
Manchin and Capito said they are hopeful a hearing can be held on their bill by the end of this year, with a final vote taking place early next year.