Legislation to redesignate the New River Gorge National River as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve was introduced Thursday by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
The proposal replaces legislation Capito introduced last October that would have redesignated the rugged tract of Southern West Virginia cliffs, canyons and cascading rapids as the New River Gorge National Park. Last year’s bill failed to advance, mainly because of concern that hunting could be restricted on the federal land with the new designation.
Capito, along with the whitewater outfitters who came up with the plan and the New River Gorge towns and businesses that supported it, wanted hunting rights in the Gorge to remain unchanged after the planned name change. However, none of the 61 full-fledged national parks in the National Park Service system allow hunting.
But hunting is allowed in national preserves, and by adding a national preserve component to the proposed national park, hunting and fishing would continue to be listed on the Gorge’s outdoor recreation menu.
National park status for the New River Gorge was sought because rebranding federal parkland as a national park has proven to increase visitation without raising costs, due to public perception that national parks provide high-quality nature and recreation experiences.
A study completed in May 2018, conducted when a proposal to redesignate White Sands National Monument as a national park, showed that eight former national monuments that became national parks during the previous five years experienced annual visitor increases averaging 21 percent.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act would designate between 5,000 and 6,000 acres of the 72,808-acre tract of federal land as a national park component, where hunting would not be allowed. Much of the land proposed for inclusion in the national park component is already off limits to hunting, including the town of Thurmond, Sandstone Falls, the areas immediately adjacent to the park’s visitor centers, and its Grandview unit, a former state park.
The national park component also would include a chunk of the lower Gorge, extending northward from Keeneys Creek, past the New River Gorge Bridge and Canyon Rim Visitor Center to the park’s northern boundary, adjacent to Hawks Nest State Park.
“Redesignating the national river to a national park and preserve will shine a new, brighter light on the New River Gorge and its many offerings — including hunting and fishing — to help drive tourism and spur the local and regional economy,” Capito said in a news release announcing the new legislation.
“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,” said Manchin, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Despite the dual name, a New River Gorge National Park and Preserve would remain a single National Park Service unit, managed and maintained by the same personnel. The Bluestone National Scenic River and Gauley River National Recreation Area, now administered by New River Gorge National River, would not be included in the redesignation plan.
While there are 19 national preserves in the NPS system, there are only six combination national parks and preserves, all in Alaska. There is one national monument and preserve — Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, in Southern Oregon.