By Robert Beanblossom
In recent years, many short-sighted individuals have developed a perception that West Virginia’s state park and forest system is a financial liability to the state—a ‘luxury’ that the state cannot afford—that they ‘lose’ money and that the system is ‘mismanaged’ and should be made to produce a profit. There is a strong belief by many legislative leaders and the governor that private investment and operation is the way to go.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our state parks and forests are among the state’s greatest assets and have served the people of West Virginia well since their initial creation in the late 1920s. West Virginia established our parks and forests for other objectives than profitability and the success or failure of the system should always be ultimately judged, as with any state agency, on how well those objectives, as specified in state law, are met.
The natural resources section of the State Code specifically mandates that the state park 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.” In other words, its purpose is to provide stewardship of the land while serving people. By any measure, our park and forest system has met both objectives exceedingly well during its 94-year history.
Environmental stewardship responsibilities are often overlooked in the debate about the ‘profitability’ of the state park system. Our state parks and forests provide numerous tangible and intangible environmental benefits. In addition to outdoor recreation, the roughly 200,000 acres of forestland in the system provide watershed protection, which helps in the process of maintaining clean drinking water for all of us. Forest cover protects and nurtures the soils that are the key to water retention, filtering and quality.
Our state park system also protects valuable wildlife habitat, especially for late successional, interior, forest dwelling species, and they also help to protect our air quality. One mature tree absorbs approximately 13 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. For every ton of wood a forest grows, it removes 1.47 tons of carbon dioxide and replaces it with 1.07 tons of oxygen. The forests that are protected and managed in the system produce enough oxygen for over 3,600,000 people to breathe each year to say nothing of the carbon they sequester.
Preservation of green space is probably one of the greatest environmental benefits of our park and forest system. In many respects, West Virginia is fortunate that we have not had to deal with the urban sprawl, which is consuming our farm and forestlands at an alarming rate throughout the United States. Although blessed with an abundance of privately owned forestlands, the state is, however, beginning to feel the effects of development. The forest inventory conducted in the mid-1990s revealed that West Virginia had, for the first time since 1940, lost forestland. About 200,000 acres or more have been consumed by strip-mining, road construction, and urban growth in the eastern panhandle and the Morgantown area. This decrease in forest land may indicate that the area of forest land in West Virginia may have peaked.
Obviously, there are costs associated in maintaining land whether it is in public or private ownership and the recreation user alone should not and cannot be expected to pay all of them. General revenue and lottery dollars help cover those costs. For example, park superintendents and assistant superintendents have full police power on their areas and are especially instrumental in enforcing hunting and fishing violations. Our superintendents also help protect our lands from the ravages of wildfires and provide insect and disease control efforts to help maintain healthy forests. Water and sewer and other infrastructure systems must also be maintained.
When weighed against the benefits to society, these yearly expenditures of our modest tax dollars are a wise investment by the state. After all, land is a precious commodity and the most finite resource we have. One of the more important functions of government is to hold that resource in a public trust not only for our use but for generations yet unborn. Many states are belatedly learning that lesson. In 36 states where urbanization is rapidly occurring, over $8.5 billion has been spent just since 2001 to preserve what remnants of green space remain. Investment in additional public lands in West Virginia now would be one of the wisest moves the state could make.
What about the second mandate which is provide affordable outdoor recreation for West Virginians and its visitors? West Virginia deserves high marks in this regard, too. The WV State Parks system is one of the most diverse systems in the nation in terms of the types of areas operated and the complexity of recreational facilities. The system operates 35 state parks, nine state forests, and two long-distance trails. On those areas are found seven golf courses, 11 lodges with about 922 rooms, 333 cabins, 1,729 campsites, 1,036 miles of hiking trails, 3,863 picnic tables and numerous swimming pools, trams, tennis courts, picnic shelters and even a railroad.
In fiscal year 2020, the system generated a total of $29,390,544 in revenue and operated at 59.34 percent self-sufficiency, while the national average for state park systems was a little over 35 percent and those state park systems that ranked higher had mandatory entrance fees.
State parks and forests touch the very fabric of life in every corner of the state and touch individual lives in ways we would never imagine.
In addition, many of our state parks with the least revenue are some of the ones with the most significant historical importance. Carnifex Ferry and Droop Mountain battlefields are a part of West Virginia’s Civil War heritage, and Cathedral, with its virgin hemlock stand, has been declared a national, natural historic landmark. This virgin forest has incalculable benefits for research as foresters continue to explore the dynamics of old growth ecosystems. Valley Falls, Prickett’s Fort, and Watters Smith also have significant historical value, yet all of these have limited income while serving a vital need for recreation and preservation of some unique historic sites. Visitors, especially children, can literally see history come alive visiting one of these areas, and these experiences reinforce and supplement what they have learned from textbooks in the classroom. To suggest that these parks be eliminated or closed would be the equivalent of advocating that we no longer provide free textbooks to school children.
Further, our parks and forests are an important source of employment in many of the more rural areas to the state. Young men and women carry skills learned during the time they serve as lifeguards, campground attendants, maintenance workers, front desk clerks, and other positions throughout their lives. Society ultimately benefits because they were able to avail themselves of these rewarding and enriching experiences.
Another important aspect of state parks that is often overlooked is their contribution to democratic principles and beliefs. They are the embodiment of democracy at best. This precept was laid down at the very beginning of the establishment of parks in America. Frederic Law Olmsted who was born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut, was hired to develop Central Park in New York City.
Olmsted believed natural scenery should be available to all the people. He did not agree with the apologists of aristocracy that working men and women were incapable of appreciating natural scenery and being improved by its influences. Therefore, in the U.S., it was the right and duty of government to protect some natural areas and to make them readily available to all the citizens.
This very basic tenant is at the very core of state park operation and management today. This, in part, explains why entrance fees have never been implemented for WV State Parks and Forests system. The argument against entrance fees rests on the belief that wildland recreation provides benefits to participants in society that are sufficiently important to justify providing opportunities at public expense so that all citizens may participate. Arguments along this line are called “merit goods” arguments. Common to all these merit goods arguments is the notion that recreation user fees are discriminatory because they deprive those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder a fair chance to realize these benefits. A certain level of outdoor recreational opportunity should be available to all without charge. Further, implicit in this concept is the belief that recreation resources should be subsidized with public funds because recreation is as good for society as for the individual participant.
West Virginia benefits economically because of the park system. If one only looks narrowly, each state-run facility “loses” money; but if you take a broader look that includes the sales tax generated, the turnpike fees paid, and the monies spent in the local communities shows the system more than pays for itself. The ‘profit” from the system is found in the many businesses located in the rural communities surrounding our parks and forests. According to an economic impact study conducted in 2016, the total economic impact of the system is between $160.5 million to $189.5 million annually.
More importantly it would be impossible in the future for West Virginia to have any chance for economic growth without amenities like our state parks and forests. The highly educated, mobile, high-tech, service sector employees of the 21st century will accept no less. Quality of life is the number one reason they cite for relocating to a given area, with the recreational amenities available at the top of the list.
Intangible recreational benefits are just as important. In 2001, the Surgeon General declared a national “call to action” to reverse a national trend toward obesity with West Virginia being one of the worst offenders in this regard. Health professionals agree that outdoor activities are good for both the body and mind. Most state park and forest visits involve at least some walking and many entail more strenuous forms of exercise such as skiing, hunting, mountain biking, or hiking. This type of recreation contributes to a healthy lifestyle while lowering health care costs for all West Virginians.
There are social and spiritual benefits as well. Recreational activities often are occasions for bonding with family and friends. They help us learn about teamwork, about the outdoors and about our own abilities. They give us a sense of accomplishment in meeting a challenge, such as catching a fish, climbing a mountain or completing a rigorous hike.
They are occasions for aesthetic enjoyment in spectacular surroundings, and they can offer us quiet and solitude in communion with nature and reconnecting with the land that give us life. I have often thought that if West Virginia ever was forced to implement entrance fees, then likely our greatest decline in visitations would be on Sundays. Our parks literally over-flow with thousands of visitors attending church picnics and meetings all summer. These rural, often strapped for cash churches, could no longer afford these outings.
All the above seems to matter little to the current administration, just look at the recent attacks by Governor Justice and the legislature. Legislation was introduced to open state park lands to indiscriminate logging a couple of years ago and every year attempts are being made to open them to ATVs. Last year a bill was passed that permits wholesale privatization, and this year a bill (SB161) was quickly passed and signed into law that permits the director of the Division of Natural Resources to sell off almost anything including lands. This last move has the potential to be the most egregious of all and it behooves all of us to be ever vigilant to see this does not happen. Keep a close eye on this one!
West Virginia is indeed fortunate to have a diverse system with an abundance of recreational activities as it does. Visitor surveys show that it is ranked as one of the top systems in the United States. Let us keep it that way!
Robert Beanblossom, a member of the Society of American Foresters, grew up in Mingo County and retired after a 42-year career with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He now resides in western North Carolina as the volunteer caretaker at the Cradle of Forestry in America and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org