It’s no secret that West Virginia’s state parks are struggling. The state park system is plagued by a $50 million maintenance backlog, and 2016 saw a round of layoffs and the shuttering of several state park pools. Aside from last year’s failed attempt at instituting user fees in a handful of state parks, the legislature has struggled to develop a panacea for the financial woes—until now.
On January 15, Senate Bill 270 (SB 270) was introduced to allow commercial logging in West Virginia’s state parks. After reading the bill and considering the facts behind the issue, we have decided that opening our state parks to logging is not the answer, and we stand in opposition to SB 270.
The bill, which would effectively lift a ban on logging in state parks that has been in place since 1931, is sponsored by West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) and Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso (D-Marion) and was introduced at the request of Governor Jim Justice as a partial remedy for the maintenance backlog. Justice claims SB 270 would use logging revenue to secure a 20-year bond to pay for backlogged maintenance. The bill would authorize the Director of the Division of Natural Resources to work with park superintendents to “implement a sound silvicultural management plan for state park lands, which may include the harvesting and sale of timber.”
The debate is already heating up. Early this week, a coalition of conservation groups under the “Save our State Parks” campaign came out in opposition to SB 270. But many others support the bill, including proponents of sustainable forest management, sportsman, and deficit hawks who view the bill as an obvious solution to our parks’ financial woes.
Some in this debate have claimed West Virginia’s state park system is broken. We do not share this sentiment. Go to any state park on a weekend, and you’re bound to see people experiencing West Virginia’s spectacular natural landscapes and rich cultural heritage. State parks contributed $230 million to the state economy in 2015. Forty-six percent of state park visitors come from out of state. Clearly, the parks are being utilized and enjoyed by many, but facility closures and maintenance issues are tangible and need to be addressed. The park system is not broken, it is malnourished.
While we applaud Governor Justice for recognizing the need to properly fund West Virginia’s state parks, we believe that logging these spectacular forests—the very places people visit to experience immersion in natural ecosystems—is not the proper way to go about it.
While a combination of revenue sources will be needed to make the parks completely solvent, we support a reasonable user fee—such as the user fee that was developed in April of 2017 and immediately canceled amid public backlash—as one of the most viable and achievable pathways to funding our state parks.
According to Steve Selin, Program Coordinator and Professor of Recreation, Parks & Tourism Resources at West Virginia University, the iteration of the user fee in 2017 was premature. “Ample time is needed to get input on [a user fee] proposal and to build public support for it,” Selin said. “I believe park advocates and visitors would be willing to support a reasonable entrance fee if the income were dedicated to park maintenance and enhancement.” Selin suggested different rate structures for out-of-state and in-state visitors, and lower fees for specific groups or underrepresented populations.
It’s ironic that legislators may have to move from a user fee to logging before the public realizes that a user fee wasn’t so bad after all. We believe revenues from the user fee is much more reasonable. Those revenues can be further bolstered by support from private foundations and local non profits. There are a variety of complementary funding alternatives that have been proposed by West Virginians for Public Lands in a Save Our State Parks Alternative Revenue.
In his statement released after the decision to cancel the user fee in 2017, Justice said: “West Virginians are struggling and at this time there is no way I can go along with charging a fee to enjoy our state parks…West Virginia’s state parks will remain free and open to the public. When I see a mistake, I make it right.” It is a mistake to go against the mission of the West Virginia state park system. Governor Justice, it’s time once again to recognize a mistake and make it right.
The bottom line is that by allowing logging in state parks, SB 270 effectively violates state code. The purpose of the West Virginia state park system, and the reason for any land acquisitions by the park system, is to promote conservation by preserving and protecting natural areas of unique or exceptional scenic, scientific, cultural, archaeological, or historic significance; and to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for the citizens of the state and its visitors.
This bill goes against that mission by failing to preserve and protect the forests contained within state park boundaries. Although there is financial and ecological value in the responsible harvesting of timber, our state parks are not managed as a resource subject to forestry practices. We visit our state parks to walk on trails, not logging roads. We venture into the mature forests to hear babbling brooks, not chainsaws. West Virginia’s state parks are truly Wild and Wonderful, and anything to damage that rugged brand could have negative implications for tourism—the very industry this bill is supposedly trying to support.
While we want to avoid proselytizing what is good forest management policy, we feel the state park system should continue to be managed under its current mission: for preservation of natural areas and to provide for recreation. SB 270 states that forest lands “not generally utilized by the public” will be eligible for timbering. West Virginia’s state parks feature hundreds of miles of hiking trails—will logging occur in the vicinity of more obscure trails that are deemed not generally utilized? Many visitors specifically seek these trails to avoid crowds and engage in a truly immersive recreation experience.
A large portion of West Virginia’s mature and remaining old-growth forests are contained within state parks such as Cathedral State Park. At 133 acres, Cathedral is the state’s largest old-growth forest and contains the only remaining stand of virgin hemlock in West Virginia. Cathedral is also the only state park designated a National Natural Landmark. SB 270 mandates that four trees per acre may be removed, and only trees with a minimum diameter of 16 inches may be harvested. That equates to 532 of the largest trees within the park being removed, which will most certainly create a drastically different park experience.
While foresters can make the sound argument that selective thinning provides the successional forest habitat in which many species thrive, we must not deny the value of old-growth forest as an absolutely essential habitat for many threatened species endemic to West Virginia. We must prioritize these old-growth stands and ensure that successional forests within state parks are allowed to reach maturity through natural processes. And by removing the largest and healthiest trees in the local ecosystem, logging operations can directly lead to degradation of forest ecosystems via fragmentation, soil erosion and compaction, and sedimentation in adjacent aquatic environments.
Ultimately, this is not a silviculture bill or a forest management bill. SB 270 is a revenue bill. We do not need to go against the purpose of our state park system to raise revenue by cutting trees. Through state forests and wildlife management areas, which are managed for resource extraction, West Virginia has nearly five times the acreage of its state parks available for timbering.
A coalition of conservation groups has formed the “Save Our State Parks” campaign to drum up public opposition to SB270, and currently includes the West Virginia Environmental Council, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, West Virginia Scenic Trails Association, West Virginians for Public Lands, West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, Friends of Blackwater, Kanawha Forest Coalition, and Mountain Lakes Preservation Association. To learn more, check out this fact sheet developed by West Virginians for Public Lands. We not only endorse this campaign but acknowledge the problems within the state park system, and encourage dialogue about policy alternatives to help address this challenging issue.
The WV DNR will not be available for public comment until an official statement is released. WV DNR Public Information Office Hoy Murphy said a public statement should be released soon. We look forward to future dialogue with our state agencies.
While action at the state level is required to properly fund West Virginia’s state park system, we share the belief that logging within our state parks is not the answer. State parks return $13 for every $1 invested by the legislature. Our state park system is vital to West Virginia’s economy, and any legislation that alters the mission of the state park system could harm its economy. For these reasons, we stand in opposition to SB 270.
If you share our belief that West Virginia’s state parks should continue to be managed for recreation and preservation of natural ecosystems, consider sending a comment to Governor Justice, calling his office directly at 304-558-2000, and contacting your state legislators. We recognize that SB 270 is likely to be a contentious issue, and welcome respectful debate from all stakeholders in our forum.