LANSING, W.Va. — State and congressional officials were on hand Wednesday as the New River Gorge National River received a long-sought upgrade to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the nation’s 63rd and newest national park.
U.S. Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., joined Chelsea Ruby, the secretary of the new state Department of Tourism, and Park Superintendent Lizzie Watts in pulling down a curtain revealing new signage for the park.
“We’re deeply honored, thrilled, delighted, and just plain happy that this day came,” Watts said. “Becoming a national park really is a true honor for all of us, for the people who live next to this park, for the people that work here, and the people and all of the citizens of West Virginia. They all get to know what we knew: that is really, truthfully is one of the most spectacular places on the face of the Earth,”
The event took place at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center overlooking the New River and just a mile from the world-famous New River Gorge Bridge. Both the New and Gauley rivers in Fayette County are known for their whitewater rapids, scenic trails, and views of the gorge.
Manchin and Capito introduced the New River Gorge Park and Preserve Designation Act in the U.S. Senate, with 3rd District Congresswoman Carol Miller, R-W.Va., introducing a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019.
Originally designated a national river by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, the New River Gorge Park and Preserve Designation Act – signed into law by President Donald Trump — creates the new 7,021-acre park. The bill also sets aside 65,165 acres for a nature preserve, opens up 368 acres for hunting in the Grandview area and maintains another 301 acres in the Lower Gorge for hunting.
Officials believe the national park designation will bring in additional tourism from American and international travelers. The bill allows the National Park System to bid on parcels of land to expand the park an additional 3,711 acres, as well as acquire another 100 acres for additional parking to accommodate the increase in potential visitors.
“This is a great day for Southern West Virginia,” Capito said. “We are dedicating the new signage that indicates that this is now a national park and preserve. It’s already been in effect for about three months, but it’s exciting today because we’re going to show every traveler. Everybody who wants to find the park is going to see it designated as a national park. You can feel the enthusiasm, I think.”
“This is unbelievable for West Virginia,” Manchin said. “This is the window to West Virginia, and this is something that basically we can all benefit from, the whole state can. This is basically a game-changer for our state to have a national park.
“When you have Democrats and Republicans that can put aside their politics and do what we’re supposed to do and make things happen, improve people’s lives, and create opportunities, we were able to do that, and I’m proud to work with Shelley,” Manchin continued.
According to the Department of Tourism, the number of visitors to the park and Fayette County has already started to increase. In the first quarter of 2021 – a typically slow quarter for the county and park — visitation was up 14 percent compared to 2019 numbers pre-pandemic.
“If I were to give you projections even further out through the year, you would be even more impressed, because we are seeing higher and higher numbers” Ruby said. “Everyone here will tell you bookings are up, travel is up, everything is up. We think this is just the beginning.”
For Watts – a nearly 30-year veteran of the National Park Service who started her career at the New River Gorge National River just as the visitors center was being constructed – Wednesday’s name-change ceremony was a moment she will always be proud of.
“The Park Service has been lovely to me. I’ve gotten to see the whole world. I traveled all over the United States and I’ve been in 11 different parks, but I keep coming back here,” Watts said. “To be blessed by the Park Service to allow me to come back as it got moving towards a national park is pretty special, very special for my team, and very special for West Virginia.”