Described as the “gold standard” for tourism, a National Park designation has been stamped on the New River Gorge via year-end appropriations legislation that passed Congress on Monday night.
The renaming, courtesy of a congressional omnibus package passed late Monday night, creates the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in Fayette and Raleigh counties, becoming the 63rd National Park and the 20th National Preserve in the United States.
The designation, if the bill is in fact signed into law by President Donald Trump, is expected by some to increase tourism traffic and dollars for an economy wilting under the decline of the coal industry.
Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced the New River Gorge Park and Preserve Designation Act in October 2019 to preserve the gorge and to enhance the burgeoning outdoor recreation industry in the southern reaches of the state.
Manchin, in a press release, said, “This designation will increase the international recognition by highlighting West Virginia’s world-class beauty and resources.
“Over the last two years we have met with outdoorsmen, businesses and local leaders and other interested groups to ensure this designation will promote the beauty and rich history of the New River Gorge, while ensuring that the longstanding traditions of hunting and fishing are protected for generations to come,” Manchin stated in the release.
“I think what it’s going to mean is a lot of people come to this country and a lot of people in this country plan their summers traveling around visiting national parks,” Capito told MetroNews.
Capito said the rebranding of the gorge is projected to raise the number of visitors to the area by about 20 percent.
The legislation creates a 65,165-acre preserve where hunting and fishing will be allowed and a 7,021-acre park. It also keeps 301 acres of the Lower Gorge open for hunting and opens up 368 acres in Grandview for the first time.
The bill also authorizes the National Park System to bid on additional land for the Preserve that amounts to 3,711 acres and authorizes the NPS to acquire up to 100 acres for parking only, which is needed as the area has seen an increase in visitors.
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Lizzie Watts, superintendent of the New River Gorge National River, said while she is happy for those who have worked for decades to achieve the designation as a national park, the proposed change won't make a big difference to those doing the work inside the park's boundaries.
"If the legislation does get signed into law, we will be happy for those whose efforts to make this happen were successful, including Senators Capito and Manchin and Congresswoman Miller. Also, those local outfitters who were some of the original drivers, along with Senator Byrd, to make New River part of the NPS to begin with," she said in an email interview.
"For us in the park, it won’t mean a great deal of change in how the park is managed. NRGNR is one of 423 units of the national park system, many with different designations that are all special in their own way. We will be changing signs and wording on publications, exhibits, social media posts, and probably many things we’re forgetting, in the months to come, along with trying to remember to say 'New River Gorge National Park and Preserve' every time we answer the phone, welcome a visitor, or sign a letter," she said, adding "Hunting, a traditional use of the park, will continue in the 90% of the park designated as national preserve and we will also be looking at alternatives for distinguishing between park and preserve for hunters."
“'National Park' is a designation currently given to 62 of these 423 park units, and one that is recognizable with some of the older, more established parks in the system. Should visitation increase as a result of the name change, the National Park Service will be ready to introduce more people to something we’ve known all along, that the New River Gorge region is truly one of the most scenic places in the U.S., and one of the richest natural and cultural resources that belong to the American people.
The legislation, according to a joint press release issued by the senators, will maintain hunting and fishing within the preserve area with specific protections for hunting, fishing and trapping on privately owned land.
While tourism officials welcomed the news, hunting enthusiasts were less excited.
Larry Case, an outdoors columnist for The Register-Herald and other publications and a former West Virginia game warden for 36 years, said there are a good many hunters who are not happy with the designation.
“Local hunters are not for it,” Case said. “We’ve just kinda been bulldozed over it.”
Case described a conference call earlier this year among hunters, local concerns and staffers for both Capito and Manchin to address hunters’ concerns.
“It did not go well,” Case said.
“When it comes to public lands, we can’t get enough of it and we don’t want to lose any of it,” Case said. “If you want to hunt, it’s the first thing you’ve got to have.”
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act was added by the West Virginia Congressional delegation to the Fiscal Year 2021 Omnibus Appropriations Bill and pandemic relief measure. President Trump has expressed his displeasure with the legislation because of what he termed as "wasteful spending" and the amount of money granted to the country's citizens in the pandemic relief measure. Congress approved a $600 payment to each citizen, while the president said every American should receive $2,000. "It really is a disgrace," he said in a Tuesday address.
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The designation as a national park has been a long time coming.
In a press release, Dave Arnold, a board member of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority and founding partner of Adventures on the Gorge, said, “The road to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has been plowed and paved by over 60 years of vision and hard work.
“There are many people – a number of them who never lived long enough to see this day – who were a big part of this legislative victory,” Arnold stated in the release. “There are just too many people to thank; however, our county commissioners, especially those on the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, and our representatives in Washington, D.C., both past and present, worked together in a bipartisan endeavor to do something very special for the people of West Virginia.”
Becky Sullivan, executive director of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Bridge Day Commission, one of the park's star attractions, was thrilled with the news.
“This is exciting news! My phone has been blowing up this evening,” Sullivan said in an email interview.
“The redesignation of our beloved New River Gorge National River to a National Park and Preserve means our region will receive more desirable attention, appeal more to travelers as a destination and provide more opportunities for tourism growth.
“This will give our tourism industry a boost and more opportunity to promote all that southern West Virginia has to offer. It is projected that visitors could increase by 20 percent and in turn, this renaming will boost our local economy.
“Our corner of Almost Heaven will shine in the spotlight it deserves,” she said.
Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, also expressed his pleasure at the bill's passage.
“The passage of this bill is a testament to the progress that is possible when legislators and communities undertake a protracted effort for the greater good, and I am immensely proud of Senator Manchin, Senator Capito and Representative Miller as well as my fellow tourism business leaders, local community and community leaders who supported the effort,” he said in a press release. “This is a huge win not only for our future visitors but also for our community, staff and their families, and over time it will certainly lead to more jobs and increased economic growth.”
“Our two U.S. Senators, Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, and Gov. Jim Justice never wavered from our ultimate goal, and now it is up to this region to take bold steps to capitalize on this immense opportunity,” Jina Belcher, NRGRDA executive director, said in a press release.