A plan to make New River Gorge National River a full-fledged national park is gaining momentum in communities surrounding the 72,808-acre tract of canyons, cliffs, whitewater rapids and wooded plateaus.
In recent weeks, resolutions calling for changing the New River Gorge’s designation from national river to national park — while not changing the way it currently operates — have been approved by city and county governments, tourism agencies and development boards along the 53-mile-long stretch of parkland.
Entities signing on to the name-change idea, being advanced by a group of whitewater outfitters, so far include:
Fayette, Raleigh, Summers and Nicholas county commissions, the cities of Beckley, Hinton, Summersville and Fayetteville, Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau, New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, West Virginia Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, and the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association.
Since its creation in 1978, the New River Gorge National River has been managed by the National Park Service, which helped develop the Gorge into a major destination for whitewater riders, rock climbers, mountain bikers, hikers, hunters, anglers, birders, view seekers and BASE jumpers.
So why change anything?
“We see bringing national park status to the New River Gorge as an economic development tool,” said Dave Arnold of Adventures on the Gorge, among the outfitters seeking the name change. “It’s the best way we have to bring more people here and jump-start the next round of activity.”
According to a research paper done in May by Headwaters Economics for a proposal to make New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument a national park, eight national monuments that were re-designated national parks during the past five years experienced average visitor growth of 21 percent.
The number of overnight visits and the amount of visitor spending in the parks and in nearby communities also increased after being re-designated as national parks, producing a related increase in jobs.
The study credited the national park brand for producing quality visitor experiences with the increased visitation.
“National Park designations are reserved for areas with truly remarkable qualities that signify to travelers that they are rewarding destinations,” said David Brown, vice president of government affairs for America Outdoors Association, a trade organization for outdoor adventure outfitters.
Brown said his first visit to the New River Gorge was a memorable one.
“My jaw dropped when I drove over the New River Gorge Bridge, fortunately as a passenger, which gave me the time to take in the stunning view,” he said. “A 20 percent increase in visitation over a five year period could be conservative at New River, which is unparalleled in the eastern U.S. The mountain bike trail system being developed there is also incredible and visionary, which adds a special appeal for that market segment.”
The resolutions in favor of the proposed re-designation all contain wording stipulating that support is dependent upon retaining the existing management model for the federal land, which specifies that hunting, fishing and trapping access to the land will continue. The resolutions also spell out other “traditional uses” that must be allowed to take place in a New River Gorge National Park, including Bridge Day BASE jumping, climbing, kayaking, rafting and biking.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Congressman Nick Rahall, who had the vision to basically write into the bill creating the New River Gorge National River all of these traditional activities that had to be allowed to continue,” Arnold said. “It did a lot to promote community support for the Gorge.”
Congress would not be obligated to financially supporting a new national park, since it’s already footing the bill for operating the New River Gorge National River. With no changes foreseen in the way the Gorge is now being managed, some new signage recognizing the change in status may be the only additional expense, Arnold said.
Dave Bieri, spokesman for New River Gorge National River, said it is his understanding that the National Park Service is not advocating a position on the proposed re-designation.
While national monuments can be converted to national parks through a presidential proclamation, it takes an act of Congress to make a national river a national park.
“We’ve kept our Congressional delegation in the loop and hope to have their support when the national park designation comes up for a vote, possibly later this year,” Arnold said.