Appearing in the January 2021 issue of The Highlands Voice
The New River Gorge will have a new designation and a slightly different role thanks to Congressional action on the bill that included the Covid19 relief. It will change from being a National River, as it has been since 1978, to being a National Park and Preserve. The effort for the new designation was led by Senators Joe Manchin and Shelly Moore Capito. Their goal in proposing this change is to make the area more attractive to tourism. The area is already home to white water rafting, rock climbing, hiking trails, and hunting and fishing. The supporters of the new designation believe that these features would have more visitors if the area were labeled differently. They assume that if the area is labeled as a National Park people would believe that it offers more recreational opportunities and more people would visit. As a practical matter, the change will not have a noticeable effect on the ground. It is the same rocks, the same river, etc. The Park will, however, be listed and promoted on the website of the National Park Service. The proponents hope that the new promotion will result in more visitors.
The area designated includes about 72,000 acres, the same amount that was under federal control before the redesignation. The new designation changes more than 7,000 acres of the Gorge’s land to a National Park. The National Park part includes Sandstone Falls, the town of Thurmond, the Grandview area, and the Canyon Rim and Sandstone visitor centers. The rest of the 72,000 acres will become a National Preserve of about 65,000 acres. Most of the 72,000 acres is currently open to hunting although there are parts where hunting is not allowed because they are close to high-use areas. Hunting would not be allowed in the part redesignated as a National Park. Since hunting was already prohibited in parts of that area, the net loss to hunting would be about 5,000 acres. There is also some possibility of future expansion. Although no additional property will be taken, if there are willing sellers the National Park Service is authorized to purchase over 3,700 acres of adjacent land for potential addition to the National Preserve, allowing for the expansion of additional hunting opportunities and providing for improved public access into the Preserve.
Although some National Parks do charge an entry fee, there are no fees proposed at this time. The Park Service could always add fees in the future if the need is determined. This bill only addresses the designation of the area as a National Park and Preserve. It does not address questions of either maintenance costs or infrastructure. The hope of the Park and Preserve’s supporters is that the new designation will bring more visitors. Presumably that will increase the need for parking lots, boat launch sites, etc. as well as more staff. As those needs arise they will be addressed in future appropriations.