From the rim to the river, the New River Gorge (NRG) is layered with history, teeming with biodiversity, and bursting with adventure. Here, the continent’s oldest watercourse flows through the most mountainous state in the country, creating a superlative-packed landscape that ranks as one of the most visually and ecologically stunning places in the East.
This treasured trough has been preserved as a national river for more than 40 years. Over a million visitors flock to the chasm every year to take part in myriad recreation opportunities like whitewater rafting, hiking, climbing, and fishing. The gorge and its iconic bridge are even memorialized on the West Virginia state quarter. The thundering crescendo of the NRG was heard across the nation in December 2020 with a long-awaited redesignation as a national park and preserve. With the upgrade in status, West Virginia gets its first—and the nation its 63rd—national park.
Layers of Protection
Much like the gorge’s exposed geology, protection came in layers, culminating in full-fledged national park status. West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin (D) and Shelley Moore Capito (R) first introduced the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act in October 2019. After rounds of amendments based on local feedback, it passed as a provision in the coronavirus relief package that was enacted on December 27, 2020.
But the gorge’s stages of protection reach further back, meandering through time like the ancient river itself. Early attempts to protect the NRG include a 1963 West Virginia House of Delegates resolution “encouraging the speedy development of the New River Gorge.” In the late 60s and early 70s, grassroots organizers called for national protection of the gorge, in part to combat a planned damming project upstream. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter designated the area a national river to be managed by the National Park Service (NPS).
The boundaries of the national river expanded tremendously in 1988 through the acquisition of private land and via implementation of the West Virginia National Interest River Conservation Act of 1987. By adding the Bluestone National Scenic River and the Gauley National Recreation Area to the New River National River NPS unit, the act made the regional watershed one of the largest networks of protected, free-flowing rivers in the country. During the same period, the NPS acquired Grandview and Sandstone Falls state parks from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, adding them to the sprawling acreage of the national river parcel. The Grandview and Sandstone Falls areas are included in the new national park, while the Bluestone and Gauley river parcels remain managed by the NPS under the national river status.
The new park and preserve will protect the same 77,000 acres as before. The redesignation was designed to serve as more of a bump in prestige than a dramatic revisioning of the park, an additional feather in the cap for the NRG and a way to draw loyal national park visitors to the Mountain State. Many have high hopes the new title will bring in a boon of tourism dollars and bolster national recognition of the incredible natural value the walls of the gorge—and the borders of the state—harbor.
A Multifaceted Natural Gem
Typically, national parks are honored for some combination of scenic, recreational, natural, and historical value; the NRG has all four in spades. “It is truly a national gem on many different levels,” said Eve West, chief of interpretation, visitor services, and cultural resources for the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
More than fifty miles of the ancient river—perennially debated to be the world’s second-oldest—spill down a deep canyon cut in the Appalachian plateau. Tenacious pines and hardwoods compete with old coal mining camps and long swaths of towering sandstone cliffs, whose weathered faces wee exposed by the New’s churning brown waters.
The NRG “is the most botanically diverse river system in Central and Southern Appalachia, with 1,500 species of plants,” West said. This biodiversity stems from the NRG’s unique location in the Appalachian range, and party because it’s surrounded by the largest remaining block of relatively unfragmented mid-latitude forest in the world.
Another factor is the ample variation in moisture, elevation, and soil types from river to rim. Moisture-loving sycamore and river birch thrive in floodplains, while the rocky ridgelines support scrub pine and oak forests. There are six forest types common to southern Appalachia, five of which are found in the NRG. The exception is the spruce-fir forest, found to the east throughout the higher elevations of the Monongahela National Forest.
In addition to these five classic plant communities, the NRG fosters the Appalachian flatrock community, a globally rare ecosystem consisting of hardy red cedar, Virginia pine, and post oak. Moderated by the scouring force of powerful, infrequent floods, these communities only exist in a few places along a handful of high-energy Appalachian rivers.
The New River’s role in regional biodiversity is enhanced by its unique northward flow, which is owed to the Teays, an ancient ancestral river that drained the Appalachian Mountains when they began forming 500 million years ago. Eroding the fledgling mountains as fast as they grew, the Teays River maintained its northward course, despite most other Appalachian waterways flowing east to west. This makes the New River an extremely important migration corridor for plant and animal species, both now and under future climate change scenarios.
Many current travelers are neotropical migratory birds, whose seasonal presence earned the NRG an Important Bird Area designation from the National Audubon Society. Of particular note are Cerulean Warblers and a handful of other at-risk species that move through the gorge in abundance during spring and fall. “Birders come from all over to get a glimpse at some of the species we have here,” said Tabitha Stover, director of the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, “and I geek out over all the salamanders and mushrooms all the time.”
The NRG is the heart of Central Appalachia’s amphibian diversity, with more than 50 species of amphibians recorded in the gorge. Familiar species commonly seen in the park include spring peepers, wood frogs, and red spotted newts. The area also provides critical habitat for species of concern, like the rare black-bellied salamander and the massive eastern hellbender.
Some 89 species of fish inhabit the river’s waters, eight of which are found nowhere else on Earth. These endemics include the colorful blue and orange candy darter, the marbled, fan-finned Bluestone sculpin, and the aptly named bigmouth chub. The park also protects a critical population of the declining Allegheny woodrat, as well as the federally endangered Virginia big-eared bat and the Indiana bat. These two endangered bats, alongside eight other bat species, often roost in the area’s many abandoned coal mine portals.
Before the last coal mine was abandoned in 1963, more the 60 mining boomtowns lined the New River, extracting the high-quality bituminous coal exposed by the river’s steady erosion of the canyon. Heavy logging accompanied the mining, completely denuding the densely forested area now encompassed by the park. Although ruinous relics of this past can still be seen in Thurmond, Nuttalburg, and Kaymoor, the rich forests and diverse animals that now thrive in the NRG are a testament to the resilience of a protected ecosystem.
Today, the NRG is well-known for its outstanding recreation opportunities. The cliffs of bullet-hard Nuttall sandstone are home to roughly 3,000 rock climbing routes, comprising some of the best climbing in the country. The New River itself boasts world-class whitewater. A burgeoning trail system draws hikers and mountain bikers along the rim and down the canyon’s walls. The New’s warm waters also attract anglers for large-mouth bass and other prized game fish, including channel catfish, flathead catfish, and green sunfish.
National parks typically have restrictions on recreation access and usage, but biking, hiking, rafting, and other paddlesports will be administered as before the redesignation, according to information in the bill. Bridge Day—and its legendary BASE jumping event—will also live on. According to West, the rock climbing management plan will be changing, but that plan was being revised prior to redesignation.
The biggest impact—and a source of major controversy—is via changes in hunting access. Most national parks are completely closed to hunting, but nearly all 77,000 acres of the NRG were open to hunting when it was managed as a national river. As a compromise, the redesignation to a national park and preserve set up the rather unique arrangement of a protected area that is 10 per cent national park and 90 per cent preserve, where the preserve section is open for hunting. The NRG is now the only national park and preserve in the Lower 48, this status coming as a direct result of citizen input during the planning process.
The 65,165-acre preserve will allow hunting and fishing as before; the 7,021-acre park parcel will now be closed to hunting, except for 301 acres in the lower gorge and 368 acres in the Grandview area. Hunters, however, are still concerned about access being restricted to land that has historically been open to hunting. But the park may be getting bigger, as the NPS is authorized to bid on up to 3,711 acres of adjacent land and acquire 100 acres specifically for parking.
Many residents believe the redesignation will boost visitation to the state. Sen. Capito said it “will shine a brighter light on West Virginia and all that it has to offer, and provide another catalyst for our tourism industry and local businesses.” An analysis of eight national monuments redesignated as national parks found that visitation increased by 21% on average within five years.
But as a town of 3,000 people already supporting an average 1.3 million annual visitors prepares to welcome even more folks into town, many challenges remain. These projections have many asking if Fayetteville currently has the resources to support the expected increase in visitation. Parking—or the lack thereof—is a pressing issue that was frequently on display throughout 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic spurred an uptick in visitation that overwhelmed park infrastructure around the NRG. Others who welcome the prestige the new park status brings are proactively seeking ways for the the town to sustainably grow its outdoor tourism industry in a way that supports and benefits residents. Anecdotally, Stover said, “we are already seeing more visitors come into town to visit the national park. Businesses are growing and more new businesses are popping up in town. It’s huge for Fayetteville.”
Congruent with the recreation-based gentrification of mountain towns out West, housing issues are already impacting Fayetteville, and many residents expect the issue to worsen. Stover specifically pointed to the difficulty of balancing affordable housing for locals with a rise in the presence of vacation rentals and second homes. She said Fayetteville learned lessons from last year’s surge in visitation and is prepared to explore creative solutions. “We will be looking for ways to keep our spark as we grow,” said Stover. With regard to infrastructure and staffing in the park itself, West expressed confidence in the capacity of NPS to adapt to future needs and increased visitation.
If the community is able to accommodate the growth while maintaining its charming feel, the NRG region—and West Virginia—have a lot to gain. Outdoor recreation currently contributes nine billion dollars annually to the state’s economy. For Fayetteville and the surrounding towns, like Summersville and Oak Hill, food vendors, and hospitality and guiding services all stand to benefit. This emphasis on recreation and tourism is part of a growing statewide trend to capitalize on natural resources in a non-extractive way to aid in the transition to a diversified, post-coal economy.
In a canyon carved over millions of years, the redesignation’s impact will likely take shape slowly and iteratively. This resilient landscape is no stranger to change, and its gateway communities must also adapt to accommodate the influx of visitors eager to experience the country’s newest national park. The redesignation to national park and preserve offers a chance for the NRG to amaze, entertain, and educate more people than ever before. According to the NPS charter, it will do so in a way that “will leave it unimpaired for future generations,” so that perhaps hundreds or thousands—or even millions—of years from now, the New River will continue flow, unimpeded, through its pristine gorge.
Birch Malotky is a freelance writer and editor working at the intersection of science, conservation, and recreation.
Feature photo: The New River Gorge Bridge. Photo by Dylan Jones