BECKLEY — A standing-room only crowd packed the Hulett C. Smith Theater at Tamarack Saturday to take part in a U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee field hearing on the proposal to designate the New River Gorge National River as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
About half of the nearly 50 people who spoke at the hearing voiced support for the bill authorizing the name change, designed to boost visitation and spur the local economy by attaching the National Park brand to the 53-mile stretch of the New River.
The other half said they would not support the bill unless most of the more than 4,000 acres of the park that would become off-limits to hunting through a national park designation was restored.
The bill, introduced in September by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where Manchin is the ranking member. Both senators took part in Saturday’s field hearing.
Comments made during the hearing were videotaped and transcribed, and will be used by committee members in considering modifications to the bill during its markup process. Capito said it was possible the bill could come up for a vote later this year.
In its current form, the bill designates more than 7,000 of the Gorge’s 72,808 acres as national park land. The national park component would encompass the Gorge’s most iconic scenery and natural and historic features, including Sandstone Falls, the town of Thurmond, the Grandview area, and the Canyon Rim and Sandstone visitor centers.
Hunting is not allowed on national park-designated land, but some of the land the bill would include as national park property is already off-limits to hunting, due to its proximity to high-use areas. In all, nearly 5,000 acres in the northernmost section of the national river now open to hunting would no longer be available for that purpose.
The remaining 64,495 acres of the national river would receive a national preserve designation, in which hunting would continue to be allowed.
Department of the Interior officials do not object to the proposed redesignation, said New River Gorge National River Superintendent Lizzie Watts. “But they would like us to work on some suggested alternatives,” she said.
Those alternatives include officially rebranding the New River Gorge National River, along with the Bluestone National Scenic River and Gauley River National Recreation Area, as the National Parks of Southern West Virginia.
Watts said that approach has been used successfully in Pennsylvania by Fort Necessity National Battlefield, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Flight 93 National Memorial and four other National Park Service units that make up the National Parks of Western Pennsylvania. The National Park Service also promotes the 11 New York City NPS units as the National Parks of New York Harbor.
“This approach offers the use of the National Park Service brand and no legislation is needed,” Watts said.
Department of Interior officials also suggested looking into redesignating the Gorge as the New River Gorge National Recreation Area. “Glen Canyon and Lake Mead are both national recreation areas,” she said, adding that hunting is allowed under that designation.
While earlier studies have indicated a national park designation produces annual visitor growth of 20 percent or more, even more dramatic results followed last February’s decision to rename Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Shortly after the natural area on Lake Michigan became Indiana Dunes National Park, monthly visitation numbers doubled, said West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby.
“National parks are the gold standard for tourism,” said Ruby. “Imagine what a national park designation would do for the state of West Virginia.”
Ruby said Gov. Jim Justice supports the national park and preserve designation for the Gorge, adding, “We’re ready to launch a marketing campaign just as soon as the new designation takes place. We’re ready and able to help with an economic transformation for this region and this state.”
“We need a new economic driver,” said Rick Johnson, co-owner of River Expeditions, in Fayette County, since Southern West Virginia “is one of the most economically depressed areas in America.”
A simple name change, he said, “could give us unlimited potential for growth. And with tourism, all the money that’s made here stays here.”
Johnson said if the New River Gorge National River had not been created “there would be no public hunting” in this area. The amount of the park that would be off-limits to hunting under the current bill, he said, “is inconsequential.”
But Jared Harman, of the West Virginia Wildlife Federation, said the failure to allow trapping within the proposed park and preserve, along with the loss of more than 4,000 acres of public hunting land in the north end of the park, make the bill “completely unacceptable in its current state.”
His concerns were echoed by a number of other hunters, including DNR wildlife biologist Larry Berry.
“I oppose any restrictions on hunting in the park,” he said. “Hunting is the cheapest and most effective wildlife management tool there is.”
Greg Burnette, of Elkview, suggested the National Park Service mitigate the loss of nearly 5,000 acres of public hunting land by adding a similar-sized parcel to the preserve section of the park and creating more wildlife enhancements inside the park.
Other speakers at Saturday’s hearing voiced concerns over an already over-taxed infrastructure system within the park that has led to overflowing parking lots, overcrowded boat launch sites and other user headaches.
“With increased attendance, it’s only going to get worse,” said hunting and fishing guide Bill Lehrter, of Fayetteville. “We have to ask ourselves if we’re willing to trade Fayetteville for Gatlinburg. National parks are created to protect unique landscapes, not to be an economic development tool.”