The big gray elephant gave a contented grunt and twisted around in his chair. He was propped in a back corner of the room and once comfortable again he dozed and started a whiffling snore.
The elephant was fat and huge and one big leg spilled out into the aisle as I watched him from across the room, over the heads of the others seated there. Everyone was intent on the speakers at the front of the auditorium, and I stared at the elephant and thought how incredible it was that no one seemed to notice or talk about him.
It was Wednesday, about 10:30 in the morning, and I was in a meeting at the National Park Service Canyon Rim Visitor Center in Fayette County. Sens. Shelly Moore Capito and Joe Manchin were there to tell us about a bill introduced in Congress called the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act. This legislation, if passed, will significantly change several things about the New River Gorge National River which is administered by the Park Service and has remained basically unchanged since its establishment in 1978.
In a nutshell, part of the current National River, four separate areas would be designated as National Park. The areas are the town of Thurmond, Sandstone Falls, what was formerly Grandview State Park, which now belongs to the Park Service, and a 4,385 acer area consisting of most of the New River Gorge. These areas would all be closed to hunting because as Manchin said, “National Parks do not allow hunting.” These sections would be deemed “National Park” the rest of the current area would come under the “Preserve” designation which does allow hunting.
The visitor center auditorium was filled to overflowing and I sat in the back row and hid myself among fishing guides, river guides and others that hunt in the New River Gorge. Manchin and Capito, along with Representative Carol Miller, gave good speeches about how the passage of the Act was going to be a boon to the area and studies show that once an area gets the National Park designation the number of visitors usually raise by at least twenty percent. That twenty percent number was used a lot during the meeting.
Cully McCurdy, representing the National Wild Turkey Federation, mentioned that under the current plan for the proposed Park and Preserve, hunters would lose access to over 4,000 acres in the Gorge. Capito agreed that number was accurate but there would still be over 60,000 acers in the Preserve where hunting would still be permitted. (The total area of the current National River is said to be over 74,000 acres.)
I glanced over at the elephant and he seemed to toss a little in his chair, but he went back to sleep.
Robert Seay, who runs a local fishing guide company, made an impassioned plea to the crowd to say, “Why does this area (meaning the Gorge) have to become no hunting? Has anyone in here ever been bothered by a hunter while rafting?” No one said anything.
The elephant opened one eye, glanced around the room, and resumed his nap.
Toward the end of the meeting the senators' staffers, just doing their jobs, were trying to cut the questions off at the end of the allotted time.
Jennifer Campbell of Hico stood and made what was probably the best comment of the meeting. She basically told the senators that her family has been hunting in the Beauty Mountain area of the New River Gorge for generations and would they please consider carefully before doing anything to take away hunting for that area.
The elephant sprang from his seat, shook his big ears and stared wild eyed around the room. I think some people in the auditorium finally noticed him.
The elephant in the room here has always been the question of closing areas to hunting in the Gorge. Those who were around in 1978 when the New River Gorge National River was born will tell you that the major concern with local people at the time was that hunting remain open in the area. Residents were assured that it would. Now it seems that many people have what they think is a better idea.
We are told if the area is given a National Park status then visitors to the area will greatly increase and it will be good for tourism, more people on raft trips, more in local restaurants and hotels. This may be true, but at what price? Are hunters supposed to just give in and say goodbye to over 4,000 acres of rugged hunting land? I don’t think so.
Repeatedly in the meeting we heard something to effect of, “Well, this land is very steep, hardly anyone hunts there anyway.” I know several local people at the meeting that felt this was just not true. This is West Virginia, after all. Hardly any of us hunt on anything that is not steep.
Here is my take on that: So what if not that many people hunt there. In this day and age hunters should not be asked to give up any public areas they already have, as these areas are already too scarce.
Many of the local hunters I talked to after the meeting were very negative and felt defeated. They feel that it is basically a done deal and this bill will pass and they will lose their hunting rights in the Gorge.
I know very little about politics, but in the end I would think that if enough hunters hear about this bill and if they will call Manchin’s and Capito’s offices and express their views, maybe there is a chance all acres currently open to hunting in the Gorge will remain as such.
When it is all said and done, it is up to you hunters to make your voice heard, and those on either side of this issue cannot continue to ignore the elephant.
— Larry Case is an outdoors writer whose column runs in The Register-Herald on Sundays. He can be reached at Larryocase3@gmail.com