BECKLEY, W.Va. — A proposal to change the designation of the New River Gorge National River Area drew an array of speakers and an array of opinions Saturday.
A field hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was conducted before a standing room only crowd at Tamarack.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, ranking member of the committee, and fellow U.S.Senator Shelley Moore Capito arranged the hearing in West Virginia to address concerns surrounding Senate Bill 2555.
The measure would change the designation of the New River Gorge National River Area to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Although advocates strongly believe it will immediately boost visitors to the region and cause a spike in tourism spending, there is a concern over the impact the new designation will have on sportsmen of the area.
“The concern I know many have had is insuring fishing and hunting inside the New River Gorge National River will be allowed to continue,” Manchin said in opening remarks.
Four panelists addressed the hearing. Jerod Harman of the West Virginia Wildlife Federation said he has heard grave concerns by conservation organizations about the loss of hunting access in the many areas of the Gorge where it is presently allowed.
“Sportsmen and women and our youth would give up a lot of good hunting ground if this proposal passes. This is a major problem. Additionally the future regulations for privately owned ground within park boundaries are now in question and this is unacceptable,” Harman said.
Hunting is not allowed within National Park boundaries, but would be allowed in the area marked as the National Preserve. As proposed, a little over 64,000 acres would make up the Preserve where hunting would continue.
The National Park would encompass 7,691 acres where hunting would be forbidden. Some of the acreage is already off limits to hunting in the current makeup of the area, but the change in designation would result in the loss of hunting access on just under 5,000 acres of public land.
“This 7,000 acres which would make up the National Park area reflects the most scenic and historic sections of the park. Much of it is in the Lower Gorge area from Nuttelberg down. The scenic views from that section are the most dramatic in the park. It’s that section that is very, very steep. It’s hard to access–you have go get there by either boat or hike–that’s the real difference,” Watts said.
Another panelist, Rick Johnson, owner of River Expeditions in Fayette County, described the area as “steep as a cow’s face.” He also suggested the area that will be closed to hunting was minimal in comparison to the Preserve. He offered a story in his opening remarks about a conversation with a non-hunter who was looking for a place to hike with his grandchildren where hunting was off limits.
“It occurred to me about how selfish we are as hunters at protecting every acre of hunting land without any consideration for those who don’t hunt, but are also entitled to enjoy the beauty and resources we take for granted. For this I was almost embarrassed and a little ashamed,” said Johnson.
However, Johnson was quick to tout the possibilities a National Park designation would offer to the region.
“Just think what a National Park designation could do for southern West Virginia, one of the most economically depressed areas in America, but within driving distance of 42 million people,” he added.
Nearly 50 members of the public made their way to the microphone to be allowed their two minutes to address their concerns into the record.
“We believe intentions are good, but we are opposed to the loss of over 4,000 acres of public hunting land,” said Ed McMinn, past president of the West Virginia Bowhunters Association.
“You say you’re almost ashamed of hunters for wanting this area, but I would be ashamed as a hunter if we did not speak out about this. We cannot stand for this bill and say it’s OK if you want to take 4,385 acres from us,” said Larry Case of Fayetteville.
Luke Gilliam owns a hunting cabin on private land in the lower gorge near Hawk’s Nest Lake. He openly worried about the impact the designation would have on his property and his ability to hunt the land surrounding his cabin.
“They say the property is steeper than a cow’s face, well why would you stop people from hunting it? If it’s unusable and too steep for anything else, why do you want to stop people from hunting there?” Gilliam openly suggested.
The loss of hunting access was the most obvious concern in the room, but it wasn’t the only one. Some members of the public expressed concern about a large maintenance backlog for the National Park Service nationwide and whether budget constraints will handcuff the New River Gorge staff. A lack of adequate parking, overcrowded trails and user areas, and a shrinking operations budget sparked more discussion.
“With the National Park Service facing budget shortfalls, it seems extremely likely the designation change will bring user fees to the local outdoor community. The NPS faces a $12 billion maintenance backlog, and the most recent budget included a $500 million cut,” said Bill Lehrter of Fayetteville.
Watts noted there were no plans to implement new user fees with a change in designation.
Despite concerns, there is equally strong support for the idea. A number of speakers backed the plan offering any gain in tourism will be boost to the region.
State Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby, another member of the hearing panel, shared an example from the state of Indiana. She noted the most recent designation change from a National Lakeshore to a National Park brought a huge increase in visitors.
“As soon as that happened, they started seeing record breaking attendance. In July their attendance doubled, just one month after the changeover. This brought national and international attention to Porter, Indiana, imagine what this could do for West Virginia.”
Ruby added the Justice administration stands ready to roll out a national marketing campaign when and if the designation is changed.
Lehrter, in his public remarks, wasn’t so sure it would be the outcome many hope for.
“We need to ask ourselves if we’re willing to trade Fayetteville for Gatlinburg. The National Park Service was created to protect unique landscapes, not as an economic development tool.”