Included in the 5,593-page year-end spending package hammered out by Congress on Monday is legislation that would make a 7,000-acre section of the New River Gorge National River the nation’s 63rd national park.
The legislation would also redesignate the remaining 65,000 acres of Gorge land as the New River Gorge National Preserve, the 20th of its kind in the national parks system.
The new designations for the federally managed expanse of Southern West Virginia canyonland were initially introduced in October 2019 by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va. The idea was to enhance the Gorge’s profile and increase visitation while retaining traditional public uses of the land, including hunting, fishing, and commercial whitewater outfitting.
Since hunting is not allowed in national parks, most of the New River Gorge National River was tentatively redesignated as a national preserve, in which hunting is permitted. Most of the prospective national park land encompasses areas where most human activity takes place, such as visitor centers, viewpoints, campgrounds, the Thurmond historic district, Sandstone Falls, and most of the Grandview area.
Since the introduction of the 2019 bill, adjustments have been made to add 368 acres of the Grandview area and 301 acres of the lower Gorge to the preserve portion of the park to accommodate additional hunting opportunities. Another adjustment would allow the National Park Service to buy up to 100 acres from willing sellers to increase parking space, already overflowing in certain areas, including trailheads for the Endless Wall Trail.
Language has also been inserted to authorize the National Park Service to bid on 3,711 acres of nearby land to add to the preserve portion of the park.
Backers of the designation changes maintain that the national park and national preserve designations would heighten the Gorge’s “brand” as a quality outdoor recreation and historic preservation site.
“It will catalyze growth in the New River Gorge area,” Capito said on Monday. Having an full-fledged national park in West Virginia “is a wonderful feather in our cap,” she said.
Since the new designations involve little additional federal spending, Capito predicted that the legislation would be approved with bipartisan support.