New Designation for the New River?

There has been some activity on the proposal by United States Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), to change the New River Gorge’s designation from the “New River Gorge National River” to the “New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.” 

The Senators’ goal in proposing this change is to make the area more attractive to tourism.  The proposal assumes that if the area is labeled as a National Park people would believe that it offers more recreational opportunities.

Right now there are about 72,000 acres under federal control.  Most of this is currently open to hunting although there are parts where hunting is not allowed because they are close to high use areas.  Under the proposal, more than 7,000 acres of the Gorge’s land would be redisignated as a national park. The national park part would include Sandstone Falls, the town of Thurmond, the Grandview area, and the Canyon Rim and Sandstone visitor centers. 

Hunting would not be allowed in the part redesignated as a national park.  Since hunting was already prohibited in parts of that area, the net loss to hunting would be about 5,000 acres.

When the redesignation was first proposed last fall, Senators Manchin and Capito held an informational meeting at the Canyon Rim Visitors’ Center.  Now the bill making the redesignation has been assigned to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  It recently held a field hearing in Beckley where it heard testimony from the public.

From the people who spoke, it appeared that support and opposition was about evenly split.  The main opposition appeared to come from hunters concerned about the loss of hunting land.  Others expressed concern about the need for adequate staffing, maintenance, and infrastructure for a park.  The proponents hope that a park designation would result in more park visitors.  If this happens, then there will be bigger need for infrastructure.  One speaker noted that there are already overflowing parking lots and overcrowded boat launch sites.  If the park designation results in the increased number of visitors that its supporters suggest and those problems are not addressed, they will only get worse. 

The proponents of the park designation spoke of it as an economic development opportunity.  A representative of West Virginia Tourism Commission said that a park designation would be easier to market and expected an increase in visitors with the new designation.  She promised a marketing campaign if the new designation became effective.  

Senator Capito said she expected a vote on the bill to make the change to take place later this year.