By Luanne McGovern
Interim sessions of the West Virginia Legislature are usually pretty humdrum affairs, but this was not the case with the September 2022 session. The Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Subcommittee met on September 11 to hear presentations “Regarding the Use of Off Road Vehicles (ORVs) in State Parks”. Members of the WV Highlands Conservancy and readers of The Highlands Voice know that the WVHC stands firmly opposed to the use of ORVs on public lands.
As soon as the agenda was announced, the WVHC went to work getting the word out to members and partner organizations about the upcoming meeting. Through Facebook postings and action alerts from the West Virginia Environmental Council and WV Rivers, we urged our members and concerned citizens to make sure the Legislators knew where we stand on this issue. And did they ever! Senators and Delegates were inundated with emails and phone calls stating their opposition to ORVs in our beloved state parks. Senators Hamilton and Beach were heard to comment that they had been receiving “hundreds” of messages in the week prior to the meeting – “all against”.
The meeting itself was an odd combination of completely disparate viewpoints. Two presentations were made by out-of-state organizations funded by the ORV industry – Ben Burr of the Idaho based Blue Ribbon Coalition, and Danielle Fowles-McNiven of Utah based Tread Lightly. (Both organizations are also aligned with Senator Mark Maynard.) The other two presentations were by former WV State Parks employees with a combined state park experience of 93 years – retired WV State Parks Chief Sam England and retired WV State Parks Superintendent Scott Durham (and WVHC member). It was no competition!
The two out-of-state presenters repeated the usual arguments in favor of ORVs – economic development, increased “accessibility” for veterans and people with disabilities, the need to increase West Virginia’s “competitiveness” with neighboring states.
In contrast, Sam and Scott gave a master class on the potential impact of ORVs on state parks, focusing on four areas – economics, fit, environmental impacts and social impacts. They presented updated information of the impact of ORVs on Cabwaylingo State Park and Forest, the only state area that allows their use.
Economics – The overall revenue of state parks and forests has increased by 39.6% over the past three years, due to increased pandemic use and the investments made in park infrastructure. In FY22 the overall system generated almost $33 million in revenue, which translated into over $400 million in economic impact to the state. During the same time, Cabwaylingo’s revenue increased by 130%, due to increased visitation. But in spite of this large percentage increase, Cabwaylingo only increased from 30th to 28th place in state parks revenue rankings (see table below). In fact, their revenues were in the same range as Seneca State Forest and Kanawha State Forest, which do not allow ORV use. The conclusion was that allowing ORVs in Cabwaylingo has had only a relatively minor positive economic impact.
One of the arguments presented by the ORV industry is that there are “1000s of acres of unused, undeveloped and dormant lands” in the WV State Park system. This is a very inaccurate conclusion, as state parks and forests constitute only about 1% of the landmass of WV. Most of the state areas are small in size and already have existing trail structures that would prohibit any further expansion. Many of these areas have restrictive land management relationships (such as the Corps of Engineers) and significant historical or environmental protection concerns. Expansion of ORV trails into these areas is not a proper fit.
The Mission of the WV State Parks System is “to promote conservation by preserving and protecting natural areas of unique or exceptional scenic, scientific, cultural, archaeological or historical significance, and to provide outdoor recreational opportunities for the citizens of this state and its visitors”. ORVs have detrimental impacts on flora, fauna, soils and watersheds and introduce noise pollution and invasive species. All of these impacts are contrary to the Mission stated above.
State parks and forests have been set aside for the use of all citizens and are an important contributor to quality of life. ORV use in state lands would seriously and negatively impact the social benefits derived from park use – hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, solitude, peace and harmony with nature. Anecdotal information from Cabwaylingo indicates that the traditional users of the area have been completely displaced by the ORV users, making it into an ORV park, not a state park. Scott Durham gave moving testimony about his experience with the “significant minority” of ORV users that misbehave on state lands and flaunt park rules. Their attitude of “I want to do what I want to do” is completely contradictory to the Mission of our parks.
After their presentations, Scott and Sam were asked repeatedly to return to the podium to answer questions from the Subcommittee. They provided clear and concise answers to all questions, backed by data and a wealth of experience. Notably, neither of the out-of-state presenters were asked a single question. At the end of the meeting, it was clear that the issue of ORVs in State Parks was a complete non-starter. The Legislators heard from you and from the presenters – no ORVs in our state lands!
But this is not to say that the fight against ORVs on state lands is over. Rest assured that Senator Mark Maynard and the ORV industry will continue to try to chip away at this resistance, through clever and seemingly unrelated legislation. The WVHC Legislative Committee will be closely monitoring legislation as it is introduced and taking action before it can advance. Your help on this issue is greatly appreciated!
If you would like to watch the subcommittee meeting, here is the link: http://sg001-harmony.sliq.net/00289/Harmony/en/PowerBrowser/PowerBrowserV2/20220911/-1/57474
The WV Gazette provided an excellent review of the meeting here: