LANSING — If the New River Gorge is ever to become a National Park and Preserve, politicians will need to find a way to keep hunters happy.
Right now, it appears the only major detail remaining to be worked out is how many of the gorge’s 72,808 acres will remain open to hunting.
Proponents of the proposal, including all five members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, want at least a portion of the current New River Gorge National River to become a full-fledged national park. Studies have shown that having the words “national park” after a recreation area’s name helps attract more visitors.
Fine, except for one thing: National parks don’t allow hunting.
Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., believe they’ve come up with a solution. They’re co-sponsoring legislation to create a New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Some of the current acreage would be declared a national park, and the remainder would be a national preserve. The park portion would be off-limits to hunting, and the preserve portion would remain open.
It’s a concept that has worked in Alaska, most notably Denali National Park and Preserve, where more than 2 million acres remain open to sport hunting.
Under the current proposal, 64,495 acres of the New River Gorge would remain open to hunting. About 8,313 acres would be closed, but that figure is a bit deceiving.
Almost half of the land proposed for closure is already closed — the areas around National Park Service visitor centers, the town of Thurmond, the area immediately downstream from Sandstone Falls, and the Grandview area, which has been closed since the days it was a state park.
The sticking point appears to be a 4,385-acre tract in the lower gorge, from the old town of Nuttalburg to Hawks Nest Dam. Park Service officials want it included in the national-park portion of the proposed park and preserve because of its recreational, scenic and historic value.
At the time the park-preserve boundary lines were being drawn, planners reasoned that not many people would want to hunt that area of the gorge anyway, given the steepness and ruggedness of the near-vertical terrain.
Earlier this week, at a public meeting presided over by Capito, Manchin and Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., it became abundantly clear that people do, indeed, hunt that portion of the gorge. It also became clear that local hunters are none too happy about losing that much turf.
Amid questions about commercial-use permits, whitewater rafting, mountain biking and other park uses, one issue popped up again and again: Why close those 4,385 acres in the lower gorge?
The number of hunting-related questions didn’t send the politicians into full retreat, but it did appear to give them pause.
“I’m a big proponent of [a national park and preserve], but I want to get it right,” Manchin said near the end of the 1 1/2-hour meeting. “It’s on my to-do list to re-look at those 4,300-plus acres. I’m willing to consider changes to the maps.”
“We’ll definitely take another look at those areas,” Capito said after the meeting ended.
The devil, of course, will be in the details. All the members of the West Virginia delegation want to push the legislation through early next year, so any re-drawing of the lines will need to happen quickly.
Unless I miss my guess, the 4,385 acres will be downsized to some lower figure. And, if I may be presumptuous, I’d like to suggest a compromise that might be palatable to hunters.
Why not downsize the lower-gorge park area a bit, and take a sizable portion of the 770-acre Grandview tract out of the park area and place it into the preserve? The area along the canyon rim would remain in the park, and the area down in the canyon would be open to hunting.
It’s worth discussing, I think.