CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bid to transition the roughly 70,000 acres of West Virginia’s New River Gorge into a National Park didn’t go nearly as smooth as U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito had believed it would.
She introduced the bill realizing it would likely change, but the push-back was steep.
“My original bill provided for hunting in the park, but the reality is National Parks really don’t permit hunting, except to cull the herd or something like that,” she said. “I wanted to put a marker in because I thought it was a great economic development tool.”
Capito has now decided to try a different concept, a Park-Preserve for the New River Gorge.
There are several Park-Preserves across the county, which have been established for many years. The dual-designation remains a single NPS unit, but specifically allows for hunting in the National Preserve area, but not the National Park.
Just over a week ago, Capito and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin gathered with the leaders of most major sportsman’s groups in West Virginia to gauge their feelings on the idea.
Manchin had serious misgivings about declaring the entire New River Gorge a National Park because of the hunting issue, but said he could back the Park-Preserve model.
“I will support the evaluation of the Park and Preserve, but not the National Park itself,” he said. “We have already established how we like to use this property. We have not found on any National Park where hunting is allowed, except for controlling populations or something like that.”
Ambiguity in language of the enabling legislation cost sportsman the opportunity to trap in the National River area when the first area was established in the late 1970’s.
Late U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd was adamant hunting was a heritage activity and needed to be allowed in the park, but specific language about trapping was left out during a review and ultimately didn’t make it into the bill.
“In terms of the trapping issue, I was educated on it in that meeting,” Capito said. “This is something we’re looking at. I can’t say what the final bill will have, but it was made clear to us that was certainly something that was important to people in the room.”
Among those people was West Virginia Bowhunters Association President Justin Hettick.
“‘Backing’ would be a strong word. I’m certainly not going to carry the Senator’s water on this, but I don’t see anything in there that gives me any indigestion.” he said.
Although nothing has been put into writing, the general understanding from the meeting was the National Park boundaries would encompass historic and landmark areas within the 70,000 acre tract.
Those would include basically the areas of the New River Gorge Bridge and viewscape, the town of Thurmond, Grandview, and Sandstone Falls.
A lot of the land in those areas is already off limits to hunting. Under the rough outline that bill writers are studying, it would result in a net loss of about 5,000 acres of land where hunting is currently permitted, which would become no-hunting in the National Park designation.
For Hettick, trading those acres for trapping restoration could be acceptable.
“The loss of 5,000 acres of public access gives me a certain amount of indigestion,” he said. “But if we can trade that for the restoration of trapping on another 50,000 acres that was stolen from us decades ago, I think that’s a trade most sportsmen would be willing to make.”
“A lot of the area that’s going to be no hunting, is already no hunting. Like a town or suburb or something, like that,” added Jerod Harman, President of the West Virginia Wildlife Federation. “I’m not super familiar with the area, but I know there’s a lot of steep terrain in there that’s not really conducive for hunting.”
Capito agreed the net loss of 5,000 acres would be not be as big as it might sound.
“The 5,000 acres to be removed from hunting capacity, I think we need to realize there’s still 50,000 plus acres where hunting will still be allowed,” she said. “A lot of that is on very steep land that would be very difficult to hunt anyway. But we’re looking carefully at getting it right.”
Getting it right was one concern for sportsmen, and keeping it right may be the bigger concern.
There’s considerable distrust by the sporting community in West Virginia with the National Park Service bureaucracy in Washington. Much of the distrust is fueled by the trapping issue.
“It’s a really hard sell to the sportsmen’s groups when the federal government gets involved with land where they like to hunt and fish,” Harman said.
“We have to be very cautious not to lose anything and try to guarantee our rights forever if possible.”
That’s why Manchin has enlisted the help of veteran bill writer David Brooks. Brooks is on the staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee where Manchin is the ranking member.
Manchin said Brooks, who was in the meeting with sportsmen, knows the precise language to protect the original intentions in perpetuity.
“We think we have a golden opportunity, because there’s a lot of ambiguity in the legislation now,” Manchin said. “If we can clean that up so that it doesn’t leave that to the discretion of bureaucrats in Washington, we’ll be in a lot better shape.”
Harman said there’s time for discussion.
“I think there’s still time to talk about it before we can decide if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. We’re neutral right now until we see what comes of it, but it’s always good to have a seat at the table to help protect the interests of people we represent.”
The original idea of creating a National Park was spawned by West Virginia’s whitewater industry. Dave Arnold with Adventures of the Gorge, a major player in the industry, believed the Park-Preserve model being discussed is one which would still accomplish what they wanted.
“They’re all unique, but clearly when something converts to a National Park there is growth, somewhere in the range of 15 to 25 percent,” Arnold said.
“We’ve seen the rafting industry decline significantly and anything that can help it come back, even a little, is good for us and good for southern West Virginia.”
There are 19 National Preserves in the National Park System. Ten of them are in Alaska, and only two are east of the Mississippi, one in Alabama and one in Florida.
“All we can do is show you where Parks and Preserves have been in place for an extended period of time and the rights have not been infringed upon,” Manchin said.
“That’s why I wouldn’t sign on to just a National Park, but Park and Preserve we know has been able to preserve the traditions, the culture, and the areas. We have not seen that being infringed.”