Once again, West Virginia’s beloved state parks and state forests are under threat from a bill swiftly making its way through the state legislature. On February 28, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed House Bill 4408, which will open up all state parks and state forests to potential privatization and unfettered development by commercial interests. The bill is now making its way through the Senate Finance Committee, and will likely head to the Senate for a floor vote. After reviewing the bill and considering the potentially irreparable damage it could pose to our public lands, we stand in firm opposition to HB 4408.
Picture your favorite state park or state forest. Now picture it with a casino, amusement park, racetrack, luxury resort, or an outfitter operating off-road vehicle (ORV) and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) tours on shared trails. In addition to noise, pollution, and environmental degradation, these private businesses would forever change the experience of recreating on our public lands.
The most glaring issue with this bill is that there are virtually zero regulatory provisions limiting what types of businesses can open shop in a state park or state forest. In fact, the bill gives the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) director the authority to choose what businesses will or will not be allowed, only having to give notice to the legislature. This process, per language in the bill, will occur with limited public input on the decision. Further, there are no provisions requiring the assessment of environmental or economic impacts posed by private development. This regulatory omission could potentially result in permanent changes to our public waterways, forests, trails, and vistas.
Also of issue is the proposed extension of the leasing period. Currently, private entities operate in state parks on 10-year leases with the option to renew that lease for another 10 years. HB 4408 aims to extend that timeframe for up to 50 years via a 30-year lease with an additional 20-year extension. Proponents say that a longer lease will attract larger investors, but the state could get stuck with a bad company that goes bankrupt and abandons its lease, leaving the state to clean up the mess. Beyond the financial risk posed by bankruptcy, private development on public lands may jeopardize federal funding across state-owned public lands. West Virginia has received over $241 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These funds often come with restrictions as to what type of use or development is permitted, meaning the state may have to pay those funds back, forfeit them, or be ineligible to receive future funds if certain types of private development occur.
Additionally, private development of for-profit businesses could result in prohibitively expensive entry and user fees that price out lower-income families. Our state parks and state forests offer world-class experiences for people from all walks of life. Privatizing our public lands could further exacerbate income inequality by limiting recreation to those with disposable income. We are aware that six state parks (Chief Logan, Beech Fork, Tomlinson Run, Stonewall Jackson, Lost River, and Canaan Valley Resort) currently host businesses operating via private leases, and that skiing in Canaan Valley Resort is prohibitively expensive for some families. But having commercial interests operating in just six state parks is far more reasonable than allowing unfettered private development in all 35 state parks and nine state forests.
Finally, HB 4408 is cleverly disguised to open the door for ORV and ATV use in state parks and state forests. Testimony during House hearings revealed that a primary goal of this bill is to open up our state lands to off-road use. A proposed amendment that would have prohibited ATV use in state parks was voted down, further illuminating the bill’s off-roading intentions.
We are not calling for a total ban on private leasing on all state parks and state forests or for existing leases to be terminated. We are calling for this bill to be voted down or tabled in its current form until some regulatory guardrails can be put in place. Our public lands belong to us—not to commercial interests. Our state parks and state forests comprise just 1% of land in West Virginia and are home to pristine landscapes, stunning biodiversity, and the last remaining tracts of old-growth forest. These lands are places where countless people have enjoyed the best of what makes West Virginia so wild and wonderful.
West Virginia is in the infancy of a boom being fueled by the outdoor economy. More investment in trails and infrastructure for human-powered recreation is the answer—not casinos and ATV tours. A growing coalition, including the West Virginia Environmental Council, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Friends of Blackwater, and West Virginia Rivers, has formed to build opposition to HB 4408. To learn more about HB 4408, check out this fact sheet developed by West Virginians for Public Lands. If you share the belief that our state parks and state forests are for us and not for private development, we urge you to make your voice heard by contacting your legislators and asking them to vote no on HB 4408 or oppose it in its current form until reasonable amendments are made to protect our public lands. We recognize that HB 4408 is likely to be a contentious issue, and welcome respectful debate in our comment section.