SANDSTONE, W.Va. — When the idea of creating a National Park in West Virginia in the New River Gorge was first floated, there was considerable pushback from West Virginia hunters. Hunting is not allowed as an activity on any designated National Park. U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito who spearheaded the idea heard the message loud and clear, particularly at a public hearing at Tamarack.
“We had public hearings and we heard everybody and the hunting community came out forcefully, especially those who hunted portions of the area,” said Capito.
The pushback necessitated a change in plans. Some restructuring resulted in the idea of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The idea was to create the best of both worlds in which parts of the property designated as National Park would forbid hunting–some of which had been open to hunting for years. But the rest of the land, which made up the biggest part of the property would still be open for public hunting.
“I think if you look at the reality of what was created, the Park portion you can’t hunt in, but it’s actually a very small portion of the entire Park and Preserve,” Capito said.
This week’s addition of 963 acres of land on Irish Mountain in Summers County bordering the New River from Sandstone Falls downstream to I-64 is a large tract which will be added to the National Preserve. It’s the largest privately owned tract of land in the footprint of the National Park and Preserve.
“I think this will help with that issue,” Capito said as the property was dedicated at the Sandstone Visitors Center.
“We tried to find more land we could access (for hunting) and we promised we would do that. This is a fulfillment of that with 963 acres to expand,” said U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.
Along with hunting, the Irish Mountain property will also be available for all other public land uses. When the area received the National River designation in the 1970’s, U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd and Congressman Nick Rahall were among those who committed the area would always be open to hunting. But during the course of time the land designation had to be regularly renewed. At some point trapping was removed from the designation and is no longer allowed. The change, with no discussion, created a deep distrust between sportsmen and the Park Service personnel, particularly those based in Washington D.C. in the faceless bureaucracy of the federal agency.
Manchin said the new designation makes it much harder to make that mistake again. Some remain unconvinced the trapping prohibition was a mistake. But according to the Senator, change won’t be nearly as easy going forward.
“Someone would have to write a new bill and write it out. It would have to be done through legislation because it (hunting) is now enshrined in legislation,” Manchin said.
National Park Service Director Chuck Samms, a Native American from Oregon, was on hand for the Irish Mountain designation. Samms explained hunting is a key component of the Preserve designation and one he takes very seriously.
“Being able to keep that tradition and characteristic was extremely important in the negotiations for the purchase of these lands. Irish Mountain is 900 plus acres where people can still go out and hunt wild turkey and deer. That’s an extremely important part of this,” he explained.
Samms noted in his native land in the Pacific Northwest, property use is guided by a treaty and he understood the deep traditions of hunting and ties to the land of West Virginians.
“While we need to preserve flora and fauna, we need to preserve those key parts of cultural tradition that people have done since they moved here. Hunting, fishing, and gathering is the core of my tribe’s existence and belief and it’s a core of my belief. There’s no interest as long as I am National Park Service Director, to restrict those in our Preserves. I want to insure people continue to use the land in a mix of ways, and one of those is to get out there and continue to hunt as they have for generations,” he added.
When asked if he understood the mistrust and reservations West Virginia hunters have with the federal government, he grinned with a nod toward his Native American heritage.
“You don’t have to convince me,” he laughed.