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 Raleigh and Fayette counties, becoming the 63rd National Park and the 20th National Preserve in the United States.
The designation 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.
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.
The designation 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.”
Jina Belcher, NRGRDA executive director, said in the same press release, “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.”