Access and Preservation Key to the New River Gorge
By West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin
October 7, 2019 - In the 19th and 20th centuries, Raleigh and Fayette counties in West Virginia produced more coal than almost anywhere in the world. At one point there were more than 60 coal towns in and around Beckley and Fayetteville. These coal camps, our brave miners and their families were the heart of our state. They mined the coal that powered our country through World Wars and to the prosperity we enjoy today.
There are few active mines in the region now but the legacy of our coal miners lives on. Within the New River Gorge, their hardworking spirit can be observed in our dedicated raft guides, National Park rangers and small business owners who invest their blood, sweat and tears into their work making it a special place to visit. Their commitment to our state and entrepreneurial spirit drives the growing tourism and recreation industry in southern West Virginia.
West Virginians share a deep appreciation for our wild and wonderful backyard, and the New River Gorge and surrounding areas are some of our most treasured playgrounds. They are also a significant source of economic investment for our state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the outdoor recreation industry adds $1.5 billion in economic investment and 22,202 West Virginia jobs. The National Park Service estimates that in 2018, 1.36 million people visited the New River Gorge National River, the Bluestone National Scenic River and the Gauley River National Recreation Area while spending around $56.2 million in the region.
But we have only begun to make the most of the opportunities available to us. Over the last several months I have worked alongside my colleague Sen. Shelley Moore Capito to draft legislation to designate the New River Gorge National River as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. I am excited to join with Sen. Capito for the introduction of S. 2555, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act which starts the legislative process to establish West Virginia’s first National Park.
As ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the National Park Service and this legislation, I am uniquely positioned to guide this bill through the legislative process in the Senate and Democratically controlled House of Representatives to the president’s desk for him to sign into law.
Our legislation takes into account the input and considerations of sportsmen and women, the outdoor recreation community, community leaders and other interested groups who have voiced their ideas to make our state an even bigger attraction to visitors both near and far. Experts on my Committee staff and I have worked tirelessly to ensure the bill’s language protects the rights of our state’s hunters and anglers, while ensuring our iconic public lands around the gorge are preserved and enjoyed for generations to come.
Our history of access to these public lands is part of what makes this area unique, and I wanted to ensure that does not change. The bill protects the hunting and fishing opportunities we value. Hunting within the area that is designated as a National Preserve will continue in the same manner currently allowed, and fishing will continue to be allowed just as it takes place right now. The legislation also incorporates language to clarify that nothing in the bill prohibits hunting, fishing or trapping on private lands. Additionally, outdoor recreation activities such as whitewater rafting, rock climbing and mountain biking bring visitors from around the world to our state, and studies estimate that changing the designation will increase the number of visitors by as much as 21 percent. The increased visitation would result in a significant investment in the area’s economy and has the potential to transform southern West Virginia.
Designation of the New River Gorge as a National Park and Preserve will increase public awareness of one of West Virginia’s – and our nation’s – most significant cultural, historical, and scenic areas.
In my capacity as ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I am hosting a public meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 9, with Sen. Capito at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center to hear more from West Virginians about this proposal. I look forward to sharing ideas with my fellow Mountaineers.