America’s Newest National Park Is West Virginia’s First

Tucked into the omnibus spending bill that passed Congress at the end of 2020 was a measure creating the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. This is the sixty-third national park, but the first one in West Virginia. To achieve this was not just a simple matter of changing the name of the New River Gorge National River that applied to the area before. It required some deft political preparation by the bill’s sponsors Senators Shelly Moore Capito and Joe Manchin.

The land comprising the National River area totaled over 72,000 acres.  The new National Park will cover approximately 7,000 acres and the Preserve approximately 65,000 acres.

While this legislation has been planned for many years, it was initially introduced by Sen. Capito in October 2018 but failed to advance because of concerns about the impact on hunting, which is not permitted in national parks.  So the legislation went back to the drawing board and re-emerged in its present form under which hunting will be permitted in the Preserve just as it had been under the National River status.

The park portion of the area will not withdraw much new territory from hunting because the town of Thurmond, Sandstone Falls and the areas around the park’s visitor centers and its Grandview unit are already off limits to hunters.

Coupling a national park with a preserve in which hunting is permitted is not a new practice, but the six examples of its use are all in Alaska.  Even preserving much of the former hunting rights that existed under the National River designation did not satisfy hunters. The outdoors columnist for the Beckley Register-Herald, himself a local hunter, said

Local hunters are not for it. We’ve just kinda been bulldozed over it. When it comes to public lands, we can’t get enough of it and we don’t want to lose any of it. If you want to hunt, it’s the first thing you’ve got to have.

The new National Park designation was a primary project of the New River Gorge Regional Development Corporation, which worked closely with outdoor recreation business interests.  Supporters argued that National Park designation would enhance the Gorge’s “brand.”

Rebranding federal parkland as a national park has been shown to increase visitation without raising costs, evidently due to the perception that national parks are the “gold standard” outdoor experience.  A study from May 2018 showed that eight former national monuments that became national parks during the previous five years had annual visitor increases averaging 21%.

According to Manchin’s press release

redesignating the New River Gorge as a national park and preserve creates new adventure opportunities while preserving the unique culture and traditions we take so much pride in.

Despite the dual name, the National Park and Preserve will remain a single National Park Service unit, managed and staffed by the same personnel.  The Bluestone National Scenic River and Gauley River National Recreation Area, which are now part of the New River Gorge National River, will be split off and separately administered.

As we attempt to wean ourselves from coal and other fossil fuels in the coming decades, projects like this promote our tourism strengths at very little cost. They seem to be the way forward for West Virginia.