LANSING — Wednesday featured a beautiful autumn day outside in and around the New River Gorge National River.
Shifting inside to a packed room in the Canyon Rim Visitor Center that morning, interested members of the public and stakeholders met with members of the state's congressional delegation and NRGNR officials, among others, for a lively discussion of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Act.
Introduced last week, the Act features a bill introduced by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) in the U.S. Senate that will redesignate the New River Gorge National River as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
With the senators Wednesday was Congresswoman Carol Miller (R-WV), who has a companion piece of legislation in the House of Representatives.
The senators and Miller stressed that the legislation would encourage tourism, boost the economy and preserve designated hunting and fishing areas. Supporters of the legislation cite a 2018 study by Headwaters Economics that showed a 21 percent jump in visits to eight National Monuments in the U.S. that had been redesignated as National Parks.
In West Virginia, it is estimated that outdoor recreation is a $9 billion industry supporting more than 91,000 jobs.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act will maintain hunting and fishing within the preserve area — areas where sportsmen currently enjoy hunting and fishing. The legislation also specifically protects hunting, fishing and trapping on privately-owned land and will preserve and help expand the outdoor recreation industry on the New River, according to the senators.
According to a handout available at the meeting, the national park portion would be composed of four areas, totaling about 7,691 acres, including:
• The Lower Gorge — Will make up about 85 percent of the park. A majority of the land is steep, rough terrain that overlooks the New River. This section is also home to the New River Gorge Bridge.
• Thurmond — The inclusion of Thurmond protects and highlights the history of a town once at the heart of the coal boom and now a popular place for tourists to visit and explore West Virginia's rich coal heritage.
• Grandview — This area is known for its five hiking trails and scenic overlooks, which are popular destinations.
• Sandstone Falls — This portion of the park is home to the largest waterfall on the New River as well as a unique ecosystem, which is caused by the river flowing north across the region.
“The New River Gorge is part of what truly makes our state so wild and wonderful,” Capito said in a press release Wednesday. “While this West Virginia treasure has been a unit of the National Park Service since 1978, we can really rebrand this area and attract new visitors with a simple name change, which is exactly what my bill — the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Act — would do.
"I was glad to hear from so many community leaders, business owners, sportsmen and others about this legislation and discuss with them in more detail about why this measure would benefit the area and those who call this place home," Capito was quoted in the release. "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. I’m excited that this bill will hopefully allow more people to see the side of West Virginia that we all know and love.”
“Today we had a productive conversation about the future of the New River Gorge," Manchin said in his own release. "West Virginians take great pride in our outdoor heritage and particularly the New River Gorge National River.
"The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Act will bring renewed recognition to a cherished West Virginia playground."
“West Virginia’s natural beauty is one of our greatest assets,” Miller said. "I was grateful for today’s productive conversation and thoughtful input from leaders in the outdoor recreation and hunting and fishing communities and appreciated the opportunity to share all of the benefits this legislation will bring."
“This has been a watershed year for Fayetteville, with many pieces of the puzzle falling into place to make for a vibrant arts, culture, dining and tourism scene,” Lewis Rhinehart, owner of Secret Sandwich Society and The Grove in Fayetteville, said in a press release issued by Capito's office. “The additional attention, funding, diversity and tourism that this designation would bring to the region would be a win for everyone involved.”
One of the concerns expressed by some of those present Wednesday centered on land to be designated as part of the national park in excess of 4,000 acres stretching from the vicinity of Cunard to Hawks Nest Dam, acreage currently utilized by hunters which the legislation would render unavailable.
Local businessman Robert Seay offered an impassioned plea for keeping the acreage available for hunting.
"There's no reason to change something that is not broken," said Seay. There are "thousands of hunters, friends and families, that hunt that, and I would love to do the same (with family). If that is cut off, you are giving it to the tourists, which is fine. I've made a living; I'm going to continue to make a living.
"There is no need to give that up, hunting rights, for any reason. It does not benefit you all one bit."
Addressing the issue of the number of acres being taken out of hunting, Manchin sai afterwards, "That was a valid question; we're going to look at that very carefully. We owe people an answer when they ask a very valid question such as that, and why it can or cannot be done.
"They're not asking for a whole lot," Manchin said. "Movement here and there can make a big difference. We're willing to look at all of that and try to make it happen."
In the next step of the process, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hear discussion on the bill.
"As ranking member of the committee, I will bring the ideas and concerns we discussed today with me back to Washington as I work to ensure this bill becomes law," Manchin said.
Under the bill, the national preserve area would cover 64,495 acres and carry over the current hunting and fishing regulations observed in the current national river designation. And, commercial recreational watercraft services within the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve will continue to be administered in the same manner as directed by Section 402 of the West Virginia National Interest River Conservation Act of 1987, according to the handout.
Former U.S. Congressman Nick J. Rahall, who was a primary architect of the original New River Gorge National River legislation over 40 years ago, was in attendance Wednesday. And he liked what he saw.
"The outreach that we saw demonstrated today is vital to the continued forward movement of this bill," said Rahall, who congratulated Manchin and Capito for working in a bi-partisan manner. "You have to build coalitions.
"This is not a party issue or a philosophical issue; it's a West Virginia special place issue."
If the bill moves forward, the tourism potential is "just endless," he said. "We all know West Virginia is a special place."
During general comments and the question-and-answer period, other items discussed included the suggestion to get more input from local citizens on the bill, impact on commercial businesses, general use of the river, infrastructure needed to address future growth, the possible revisiting of a general management plan, fees, availability of mountain biking trails, other access issues, economic impact, and an overall parks maintenance backlog.
For full text of the legislation, visit https://www.capito.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/09-24-2019%20New%20River%20Gorge%20National%20Park%20and%20Preserve%20Designation%20Act_BillText.pdf.
For a map of the proposed boundaries, visit https://www.capito.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Official%20Map%20for%20Proposed%20New%20River%20Gorge%20Park%20an%20Preserve.pdf.
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