OAK HILL — West Virginia has welcomed a few more friends over since the local National Park Service entity was re-designated a year ago.
By virtue of a congressional omnibus package passed by both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 27, 2020, the New River Gorge National River — originally created in 1978 — became the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the 63rd National Park and the 20th National Preserve in the United States.
Legislation to pave the way for the change in designation was spearheaded by U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and U.S. Representative Carol Miller (R-W.Va.).
According to information supplied by Capito’s office at the time, the New River Gorge Park and Preserve Designation Act created a 65,165-acre preserve and a 7,021-acre park; opened up 368 acres to hunting in Grandview for the first time ever; kept open 301 acres of the Lower Gorge following requests from local hunters; authorized the NPS to bid on additional land for the preserve that amounts to 3,711 acres; and authorized the NPS to acquire up to 100 acres for parking only, which is needed as the area has seen an increase in visitors.
“It’s been a busy year with increased visitation (we are up around 30 percent calendar year to date), some of which may also be spillover from the increased use of parks nationwide,” Eve West, chief of interpretation, visitor services and cultural resources for New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, Bluestone National Scenic River and Gauley River National Recreation Area, said last week. “Most national park sites are busier this year as people are recognizing the importance of these outdoor spaces to our physical and mental health and well-being.
“Parks also make great outdoor classrooms, and many parents have taken advantage of this through the pandemic.”
West said metrics show an increase in visitor spending activity, at least in park visitor centers/bookstores, in 2021 from past years.
From the current fiscal year compared to 2019, sales increases through early December in the cooperative association bookstores in each visitors center were as follows:
Thanks in large part to the new national park designation, the New River Gorge has been featured in numerous national publications and broadcast programs with a large reach during recent months.
For example, ABC News’ “Good Morning America” broadcast a show segment from the catwalk underneath the New River Gorge Bridge in late October as part of its 50-state “Rise and Shine” series.
At the time, West Virginia Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby said the new park designation “has been a huge boost for tourism in West Virginia. Since the designation, we’ve seen visitation increases of greater than 40 percent. So, it’s not only put us in the national spotlight, but we’re also starting to see people.
“It comes at a great time when Americans have fallen in love with the great outdoors again. If there was one good thing that came out of Covid, it is that so many people now want to be outside and it’s become a regular part of their daily lives. I think we’re going to continue to see more and more coverage of the park, we’re going to continue to see more and more people coming to the park and experiencing the great outdoors here in West Virginia.”
In another instance, “Condé Nast Traveler” in early December listed West Virginia as one of the best 22 places to go in the world in 2022. In its West Virginia segment, the NRGNPP designation as well as West Virginia’s state parks were prominently mentioned. For more, visit www.cntraveler.com/gallery/best-places-to-go-in-2022.
Earlier this month, West supplied visitation numbers from National Park Service traffic counters to West Virginia Department of Tourism officials.
From January to October 2021, the numbers were 1,445,174. With two months to go, that was an increase of 48.55 percent over all of 2020 (972,884) and a 30.17 percent increase over 2019 (1,110,182).
Further, she noted that, while October 2021 increased by just three percent over October 2019, that was without normal Bridge Day visitors, as Bridge Day has been canceled the past two years due to Covid-19.
In September, the percentage increase year to date was 34.6 over 2019 and 48.75 over 2020. “The increase has steadily risen since July and was highest in September at a 55.5 percent increase and July with a 50 percent increase,” West said in a correspondence with the tourism office.
Becky Sullivan, executive director of the New River Gorge CVB/Visitor Center, said visitor contacts have shown a marked rise there in 2021. At the Oak Hill-based center, there were 3,200 visitor contacts in 2020 and 5,300 in 2021.
“The majority of shops, restaurant and business owners that I have talked with all say that there has been an increase over the last two years,” Sullivan said, although she didn’t have specific numbers to share. “With Covid, we had an increase in visitors due to the interest in outdoor recreation and open air activities.
“Then, we had the (national park) designation at the end of 2020 and it opened a new door for us. The heightened sense of positive awareness for West Virginia is increasing every day. The (national park) designation brought along new interest from nationwide publications and helped West Virginia to be seen in the light it deserves. Once people see the area, they are more likely to plan a repeat visit and stay longer. There are people adding West Virginia to their list of places to visit, or ‘bucket lists,’ because of the national park designation.”
Entering the final week of 2021, the CVB’s website page views and sessions were up over 40 percent for the year compared to 2020, said Sullivan.
The increase in visitors to the region doesn’t surprise Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, an adventure resort which borders the park boundaries. When the designation was announced last year, Wilson predicted a significant increase in visitation to the region. “We have treasures here — natural, cultural and recreation-ready — that few other destinations can offer,” he said in a November press release.
West says park officials have handled increased visitation in a variety of ways. “One way is through information,” she said. “We encourage people to ‘plan like a park ranger.’ Visit busier sites during less popular times, explore some of the ‘less loved’ sites never seen before, and please be considerate of those coming after you. Leave no trace of your visit is the golden rule of national parks.”
Also, “We have restructured our primary public information outlets, which include our website and social media platforms, to make it easier for first-time visitors to the park to know where these ‘less loved’ sites are. We encourage making this the first stop when planning a visit.”
More visitors also bring potential problems, too. “The increase in visitation has led to more rescue responses by our resource and visitor protection park rangers this year than in years past. We encourage visitors who are not familiar with the park to plan ahead and participate in activities that match their knowledge and skill level. Through information onsite at bulletin boards and on our website, we provide safety tips for specific park recreational uses, such as river rafting, rock climbing and mountain biking. Checking out information before you go is critical.”
New park signage is being created, according to West. “We are also going to be enhancing the playground equipment at Grandview and have just completed a large historic preservation project that has upgraded 30 grills for visitor use that were originally built by the CCC in the early 1940s. This was done with funds from the Great American Outdoors Act.”
Additionally, some trails that have undergone maintenance will reopen, and officials are anticipating new exhibits in the Canyon Rim Visitor Center in Lansing in 2022.