Disclosure: Jay Young works for a New River Gorge rafting company which could potentially benefit from redesignation.
In October of 2018, Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to redesignate the New River Gorge National River as the New River Gorge National Park. The New River Gorge is already managed by the National Park Service (NPS), but National River lands have different regulations than National Park lands. Ultimately, the purpose of the redesignation is to increase visitorship and tourism to the region.
A study by Headwaters Economics, an independent nonprofit research group, found that eight National Monuments that were redesignated as National Parks enjoyed 21 percent more visitors annually within five years of redesignation. Though the study is often cited as a primary driver in the argument for redesignation of the New River Gorge, the data showed that results could in fact be all over the map. “I don’t feel comfortable saying that the New River will see 21 percent more visitors just based on our study,” said Ray Rasker, the study’s lead author.
Capitol Reef National Park, for example, enjoyed 41 percent more visitors over five years following redesignation. Conversely, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve shed 13 percent of its annual visitorship in the same period. Both were already riding trends in their respective directions, and while redesignation may have aided Capitol Reef, it was unable to reverse the fortunes of Great Sand Dunes.
That’s not to say economic benefit isn’t likely from redesignation. There are other statistics which may be more relevant. First and foremost, the economy is strong, which may be the biggest predictor of visitorship in National Parks. Second, during the last decade, the NPS has been engaged in promotion with the highly successful Find Your Park campaign. Collectively, NPS lands have enjoyed visitation growth of more than 20 percent in the last decade. By far the primary beneficiaries have been National Park lands. Ninety percent of them welcomed more visitors in 2017 than they did in 2008.
Gateway communities like Fayetteville and Oak Hill could benefit by fully embracing the National Park brand. “How much does a local chamber of commerce promote that,” asked Rasker. “Is it celebrated? Do they advertise it? I think that makes it much more likely a park and a community would benefit from rebranding.”
But the proposed redesignation has some concerned that currently-sanctioned activities in the park—climbing, rafting, hunting, and fishing—might see restrictions or bans. Justin Hettick, president of the West Virginia Bowhunters Association, voiced concern that if the bill passes, local officials might overstep their bounds. “It’s not outright opposition, but I at least have real concerns,” Hettick said. “If, at the end of the day, the status quo is maintained, then no blood, no foul. But we can’t predict the unintended consequences.”
Based on concerns from West Virginia’s sportsman groups, Capito announced she intends to resubmit a new bill that calls for the creation of a New River Gorge National Park & Preserve. “We’ll drop a new bill that has the park and preserve designation,” Capito said. “In that bill will be the [map] drawings that show where the lines will be between an existing park and a preserve, so it will have much more specificity.” Those lines will define in which areas hunting will be allowed. “My understanding,” said Capito, “is it does not change that, and it lets the states keep the governance issues as they currently exist.”
“This bill is trying to make something good better,” said Dave Arnold, retired co-founder of Adventures on the Gorge, a Fayetteville-based whitewater rafting outfitter. Arnold had some input in the drafting of the original bill. “But no question, it would die immediately if protection for hunting and fishing were eliminated in the amendment process.”
Capito admitted her original bill allowed for potential elimination of hunting or a decrease in the acreage upon which hunting would be permitted. If redesignated only as a National Park, the New River Gorge would require an unprecedented exception to NPS hunting rules. “Much less so with a National Park and Preserve,” explained Capito.
New River Gorge National River superintendent Lizzie Watts declined to comment before a new bill is officially introduced and before the NPS can weigh in on it as an agency. She did mention, however, that any redesignation would likely result in unspecified effects on operations.
Sam Chaber of the New River Gorge Trail Alliance thinks that may turn out for the best. “As a National River, we’re actually funded really well. At first, I don’t think that level will change, but maybe with more visitors, it will eventually get more money.”
Gene Kistler, owner of Water Stone Outdoors and president of the New River Alliance of Climbers (NRAC), echoed a sentiment that exists in pockets throughout the community and across recreational disciplines, namely that the New River Gorge needs some work to bring it up to the standards of the National Park brand. Kistler is especially concerned about trail quality. “I don’t want the New River Gorge to be the place where the National Park brand was diminished,” he said. “Clearly, we need foot traffic to keep our businesses open and thriving. The tendency in West Virginia is to look for silver bullets, when a bunch of copper bullets will do. I hope this is one of those.”
[Stay tuned to Highland Outdoors for updates on this story – Editor.]