The New River National River Gorge will be upgraded to a national park and preserve as part of a new congressional incentive package recently sent to the president’s desk. Once signed, during the next few weeks of Trump’s term, the change should take effect shortly thereafter. The New River Gorge National River is one of three units in West Virginia managed by the National Park Service, along with the Gauley National Recreation Area and the Bluestone National Scenic River. Widely known as the new, 73,000-acre stretch of rugged canyon in the southeastern part of the state has been a world-class rock climbing and rowing destination since it was designated as a National River in 1978, but it advocates an in-state upgrade hoping a full park will bring it more cachet.
“This is going to be such an important investment in tourism in West Virginia,” Senator Shelly Capito said during a press conference on December 21. Capito originally proposed the bill for renewal in 2019 with his fellow Senator Joe Manchin. “Being a national park is a golden seal of approval and excellence.”
Once devastated by the mining of wood and coal, the gorge became the site of the first adventure. The New River Gorge has 53 miles of free-flowing white water highlighted by the “Lower New”, a popular 13-mile stretch filled with Class IV-V rapids. The cliffs of the gorge are a thousand feet high in parts, with Nuttall sandstone walls that provide climbers with more than 1,500 routes. The site even has a popular 12, 8-mile mountain bike trail system built by the Boy Scouts. It can be argued that its evolution is a microcosm of what is happening in West Virginia as a whole. Coal has traditionally been an economic driver in the state, but as mining has declined, outdoor recreation has stepped up to fill the gap in recent years, bringing in $ 9 billion annually to the state, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Capito told the press on Monday that the new designation will be a boon for state tourism, with an expected 20 percent increase in visits based on the study of previous monuments that have been upgraded to national park status.
The new designation will create a 7,021-acre park around the heart of the gorge, which is already developed with trails and a visitor center, while the remaining 65,165 acres will be designated as a national preserve allowing off-road hunting. The Park Maintenance bill gives the option to buy up to 100 acres from nearby private landowners to increase parking for popular trails, as well as the ability to bid on nearly 4,000 acres of adjacent land to add to conservation. However, federal investment should be minimal, given that the Park Service already manages the land for recreation.
“I am very pleased to know that the rivers, forests, lakes and canyons will be protected and preserved forever,” says Roger Wilson, who began managing the new river in 1975 and is currently CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, one of the largest rafting companies operating in the new park. “A group of river rats in the 1970s saw the potential of the region for outdoor recreation, but they also realized that the adventure place they were building could only be sustainable if it was protected.”
Rafting is the oldest adventure tourism industry in the area. Decades ago, there were 30 different rafting companies making trips to the gorge and the nearby Gauli River. The industry has declined in the last decade, however, which locals attribute to the changing popularity of rafting. Today, only one gorge operating in the outback of Virginia sees about half of the tourists in the high nineties. White water tourism is likely to see the biggest boost from the new park designation, but not everyone is thrilled with the upgrade in the state. The Backcountry Hunters and Fishermen’s Association was the most vocal opponent. While the national conservation status of most of the gorge is a concession to local hunters, the group is expected to lose about 4,000 acres of hunting land in the Lower Gorge with the new designation.
“I want all local businesses to thrive. I want the rafting companies to succeed. But do we really need to cut the hunters ‘ throats off for that to happen? “asks Logan Bockrath, a kayaker and a hunter who lived in the area for 16 years” “The hunters have had a pretty good relationship with other users for a long time, but it seems like we are the sacrificial group in all of this.”
The process has left some other locals ambivalent about renewal in the state. “We have the big thing as it is. I don’t think we need to change the designation, ” says Gene Kistler, president of the New River Climbers Alliance, nothing that the gorge and its gateway city, Fayetteville, are already frequented by many visitors each year. “I think being a national river is rude. What’s wrong with that?”
Apart from the loss of some hunting grounds, the management of the new river as the country’s 63rd national park will be largely the same as it was as a national river. The area has been protected as one of America’s four national rivers since the late seventies, all of which are treated similarly to national park subdivisions, with an emphasis on recreation. With the new status it will become one of five national parks and prescom in the Park Service; the other four are in Alaska.
The bill authorizes hunting as well as resource extraction in a designated area managed by the Park Service. Rock climbing and rafting will continue to operate as they have in recent years, and mountain bikers will still have access to the popular Arrowhead trails. The most notable difference that the state brings is the gold standard of Land protection. This can help river protectors fight for cleaner water running through the gorge, and should provide access to world-class climbing within the park’s new boundaries for future generations. And if the status change does result in a 20 percent attendance rate, it could mean more people are falling in love with New River gems like the Lower Keeney, the Class IV + big Water Wave train, or Junkyard Wall routes for beginners. And perhaps having its first full-fledged National Park could fully help the state of West Virginia open up the outdoor recreation economy of its future.