The story behind our new national park and its unique legacy
New River Gorge in West Virginia stands out with its hunting, fishing, and exploring opportunities.
This story originally featured on Outdoor Life.
The last time I visited the New River, it was deserted. My buddies and I had planned a multi-day fishing trip, and we set off without bumping into anyone at the put-in. We camped where we wanted, brought a duck dog, and caught a mess of fall smallmouth. So when I heard the New River Gorge had been designated as our 63rd National Park in the latest spate of National Park Service changes, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. I wondered about dog bans, a permit system for non-commercial boaters, and the end of hunting on the roughly 70,000 acres of public land surrounding the gorge.
Happily, most of that doesn’t seem to be the case. But the new designation did close a portion of public land to hunting amid objections from a reported minority of hunters, even as it allowed for the additional purchase of public lands.
Many West Virginians, however, worked hard to turn their favorite place into a national park without, they argue, compromising many of the sporting and paddling traditions that make it so special. But how, exactly, do you turn a piece of public land into a national park? And better yet, why would—or wouldn’t—you want one in your backyard?
Meet our newest national park
If you didn’t realize we added yet another national park to our ranks, you’re forgiven. The bipartisan proposal from three West Virginia lawmakers was included in the massive 2020 year-end coronavirus relief package. Once former President Trump signed the bill into law, the New River Gorge’s promotion from National River to National Park and Preserve came and went on Sunday Dec. 27, 2020, during that hazy time between Christmas and New Year’s when no one’s paying much attention to anything.
Despite the hefty $900 billion price tag of the 2021 spending package, which included $3.22 billion for the NPS, park officials say there were no funds allocated to this particular designation. In other words, it didn’t cost taxpayers anything extra to upgrade the River’s unit status.
And that status is, to be precise, a National Park and Preserve—only the second of its kind in the Lower 48 after Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, though there are a handful of these hybrid designations in Alaska. The naming convention is important because it indicates hunting access: Hunting inside a national park is not allowed, but hunting is permissible inside a national preserve.
And there’s plenty of game to hunt along the New River. The region is home to whitetails, black bears, turkeys, grouse, small game, and waterfowl. The fishing is excellent, too, with opportunities for smallmouth bass, catfish, and muskie in the river, plus trout in many of its feeder streams. The gorge itself is a geological marvel, dropping 750 feet over 50 miles to create the famed whitewater that, with the nearby Gauley and Bluestone rivers, attracts paddlers from all over the country. Rock climbers, hikers, and families also visit the historic coal region, which is still home to many of the mining structures from the heyday of the industrial revolution and war-boom of the early 1900s.
For the locals who’d been advocating for the Gorge’s designation upgrade, it was a long-awaited victory. Those folks include small-town business owners, life-long residents, kayakers, rafting guides, fishing guides, and yes, some local hunters and anglers. Apart from wanting to protect the New River Gorge indefinitely (ever hear of a national park that got sold to the highest bidder?), all those folks largely had the same goal: to attract more people to the New River Gorge.
The case for a promotion
Dave Arnold is a serious bowhunter, retired co-founder of Adventures on the Gorge, and a member of the West Virginia Tourism Commission. He says the region’s rafting business peaked in 1995 and in 2000, both years seeing some 250,000 commercial rafters (including guides) run the New River and the nearby Gauley River rapids. Today, that same whitewater sees about 100,000 commercial rafters annually.
“You’re talking about a huge decline. Some people are really surprised by that,” Arnold says. “But if you look at the things you and I love, the same thing’s happening to hunting licenses. The same thing’s happened to the Boy Scouts. What it’s all about is something bigger. It’s about the Boomer class really being outdoor-focused; the Millennials aren’t. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s hunting, Boy Scouts, or rafting. I’m 66 years old. I grew up hanging out in a creek for hours looking for crayfish and snakes. The world isn’t like that anymore—at least not in the numbers we saw 40, 50 years ago.”
Arnold isn’t accusatory in his assessment of the situation—just matter of fact. (Boomers raised the Millennials, after all.) So, to resuscitate a dwindling tourism trade in a scenic natural area that already has an appetite for visitors, you just have to work on your advertising game, right? And no landmark gets top billing like a national park.
In 2019 alone, more than 327 million visitors spent $21 billion in communities within 60 miles of an NPS site, according to a DOI study (that examined all NPS units, not just National Parks proper). Of the 340,500 jobs supported by visitor spending, more than 278,000 jobs exist in communities adjacent to parks.
“If you study national parks always, the biggest winner is gateway towns,” Arnold says. “And in some cases, it’s too much of a winner. You get something that’s maybe too [over]grown, too big, too Pigeon Forge. Even Jackson Hole, which is the gateway town to the Tetons, has some issues with traffic. So, we have to be careful with that.”
But in a state that consistently ranks as one of the poorest in the country, that possible outcome seems less urgent to proponents than the issue of a dying economy. In the campaign to drum up local support for the redesignation, one number kept cropping up: the New River Gorge could enjoy a 21 percent jump in annual visitors simply by changing its designation. This figure was pulled from a study on Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which was re-designated from a national monument in 2004. And while Arnold calls comparing the growth of two disparate landscapes with the same classification “apples to cantaloupes,” he also says the consistent denominator is indeed growth, and it’s hard to turn that down, especially if tourism increases gradually, over decades.
“Part of this was selfish,” says Roger Wilson, a lifelong West Virginia resident and CEO of Adventures on the Gorge. “Selfish not [necessarily] for Adventures on the Gorge, but being selfish as a local who wanted to see our youngsters have a chance at employment, a chance of starting their own business, a chance of earning their own living and not moving away.”
Besides, the eastern US needs more visible public lands. Most people think of the sweeping vistas and iconic wildlife of Yellowstone and Yosemite when they think of national parks, but most folks don’t live within driving distance of them. The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, Arnold points out, is within 500 miles of half of the U.S. population, including big urban centers like New York City and Washington D.C. And if we want to coax younger generations back into an outdoor lifestyle, then it stands to reason we need access to public lands near large urban centers.
One question Arnold often fielded while making the case for a national park was this: Is the New River Gorge of merit for the “golden star” that is a National Park designation?
Funny though it sounds, it’s a fair question. For example: When I learned my hometown of St. Louis had managed to snag a 2018 re-designation for the Gateway Arch, from memorial to National Park, I wondered who screwed up the paperwork. Tourists were going to show up to an otherwise underrated city and find the square patch of municipal park on a muddy, casino-riddled stretch of the Mississippi decidedly overrated. It’s a historic place—Lewis and Clark and all that—and the underground museum is pretty interesting. But national-park worthy, it ain’t. The Gateway Arch is missing all the stuff that a national park usually offers: sweeping views, plenty of wildlife, and the chance to get lost in a unique landscape.
Arnold is undeniably biased—he answered “absolutely” to the question around the gorge. A few opponents point to issues of sewage pollution, residual coal-mining contamination, and additional water quality concerns (including a nearby EPA superfund site) as grounds, among other arguments, that the area is not deserving of national park status.
But even if not everyone thinks the gorge deserved a new designation, most outdoor lovers agree it warrants protecting in some capacity. Some of those folks just think the National River status was sufficient to accomplish that goal.
Can you protect the park, and hunting?
Most hunters and anglers don’t like calling any attention to their favorite public-land spots, let alone drumming up national advertising. So how do you preserve a tradition while also welcoming new folks? For now, it seems like the NPS is keeping things mostly the same: hunting is still allowed on the majority of public land around the river, and the attitude toward land and water use remains relaxed.
“No fees are being planned,” says Eve West, the park’s chief of interpretation and cultural resources. “This is a no-fee park. There’s kind of been a rumor that got out there that we’re charging people for hiking. We’re not sure where that came from, and we don’t even know really how we’d do that. This is a park with a lot different access points. Being a river, it’s long and skinny, so there are lot of ways in and out of the park, with state roads as well.”
There are also reportedly no plans to institute a permit system for private boaters (non-commercial boaters on public waters). Arnold notes that the NPS actually had the authority to charge fees since the New became a national river back in the 1970s, but never did. Even the commercial rafting permits were issued through the West Virginia DNR rather than the NPS.
Roger Wilson’s family has lived on the same farm near Beckwith, West Virginia, since emigrating from Scotland in 1745. Wilson is the CEO of the aforementioned Adventures on the Gorge, an outfitter specializing in whitewater, rock climbing, and cast-and-blast trips along the New River. He’s also a passionate flintlock hunter who hunts around and in the gorge itself. And at 63, he’s been around long enough to witness the transition of the region from private ownership to expanded public access.
“A large part of the gorge was owned by land-holding companies: old coal companies, old coal families, that type of thing,” Wilson says. “And local people hunted—technically we all trespassed—on these properties. But once the river was made a National River [in 1978], the National Park Service started acquiring some of these lands, and they allowed hunting on it. So, for the first time we could legally hunt, even though we’d done it for decades.”
Once Congress protected the area with the National River designation, the NPS continued to purchase land for public use around the Gorge. This land acquisition teed up the region for the recent transition to a national park, because you can’t exactly designate a park where you don’t already own land.
But because some of the Gorge’s approximately 70,000 acres were designated as national park, some public land was closed to hunting—something many local hunters objected to and still disagree with on principle. Those closed lands are distributed in a few different spots, including around visitor centers, parking lots, and historic mining towns, as well as the largest, steepest chunk in the lower section of the gorge.
“We believe intentions are good, but we are opposed to the loss of over 4,000 acres of public hunting land,” Ed McMinn, past president of the West Virginia Bowhunters Association, said at one of the hearings in February 2020, according to MetroNews.
Larry Case—a Fayetteville resident, former whitewater guide, a retired game warden, and Outdoor Life contributor—argues that locals had approved of the national river protections in the 1970s because they were worried about proposed dam construction in the upper New River Gorge watershed, and because they’d been told they could still hunt around the New River Gorge.
“We’ve always been able to hunt in and around the gorge,” Case says. “When the national river was designated, we were assured—’Oh no, don’t worry about that. It’s a national river. You’ll always be able to hunt there.’ To me, that’s important. What we were told then didn’t matter.”
That is also why Case is skeptical of assurances that fees won’t be introduced, or that hunting won’t be restricted in other ways.
“Some of us pointed out when this mess was going on that hunting and fishing was mandated in this area in the Park Service compendium, meaning—to me—it would always be so. We were sloughed aside on that,” Case says. “[Proponents] always beat us up with this: ‘It’s really not that many hunters [who use the gorge].’ We don’t know how many it is. We just don’t. They also said, ‘It’s too rough and too steep, you can’t hunt there.’ Well you know what, it is rough and steep. This is West Virginia. We don’t have a whole lot of level ground here. There are people where that’s been a traditional place to go. Now are there scads of them? No. Do I have any numbers? No. We could argue this stuff all day long. But this place has always been open to hunting by law since 1978. I don’t care how many people hunt. It does not matter to me. Because my drum to beat is, we’ve got to have public access for hunters. The first thing everybody has to have is a place to go.”
Case, who moved to the area in 1973, explains the ease of parking along a road and hitting a trail that drops you down over a hill and into a gorge. He cannot recall an instance of a conflict between a hunter or a hiker or other non-hunter in the woods.
Arnold, who played a major role in helping advance the redesignation bill, originally envisioned the New River as a national park that allowed hunting, a compromise that might’ve made more folks happier than the current outcome. But he was told by lawmakers that such a thing was not possible, which resulted in a pivot to pursue the combined park and preserve designation.
An excerpt from the administrative history of the New River Gorge National River illustrates the historical debate between hunting and NPS designations, and suggests that this conflict is why so few hybrid park designations exist, because hunting tradition cannot fully coexist with a national park:
Acreage does not equal access
As hunters themselves, both Wilson and Arnold can appreciate the hit of losing hunting spots. But as business owners and tourism stakeholders, they reiterate that the overwhelming majority of public comments were in favor of designation.
Notably, the recent designation also included a provision that allowed the NPS to continue purchasing land for the park and preserve from willing sellers. There is no eminent domain that could threaten private landowners around the park.
“There have been some properties that we’ve never been allowed to hunt, mostly around the old Grandview State Park area, that the [NPS] has placed in the Preserve,” says Wilson. “So that’s open for hunting, and it’s never been open before in my lifetime.”
But not all parcels of public land are created equal, and West Virginia native Charley Mooney says that tract near Grandview should have always been open to hunting. He’s grateful it’s now accessible, but that it was more of a regulatory update than a concession from lawmakers. Mooney, who has worked in the outdoor industry since his first job at Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville at the age of 17, is also chair of the state’s relatively new Backcountry Hunters and Anglers chapter. The chapter’s formation accelerated in light of the fight against a potential loss of access.
“One of the main questions was, ‘We’re looking at numbers of tourists increasing, but what is that number? And is it worth the loss of hunting property?’” Mooney says, referring to BHA’s opposition of the loss of hunting ground. “That whole New River Gorge is a long strip that’s got…a lot of folks who live along that corridor. That was essentially their backyard: Folks would come in from work, the kids get off the school bus, and they dropped right into the [now] national park to squirrel hunt, or turkey hunt, or deer hunt. That was their backyard, and their public land to go to.”
The additional travel time to get to other public hunting areas means those residents will have a greater obstacle to hunting. According to BHA, by way of the NPS, the total net loss of public hunting acreage is, as close as anyone can figure 3,715 acres. While the NPS is looking to add another 3,700 huntable acres near the Beury Mountain WMA in an attempt to compensate for the loss of hunting acreage near the gorge, Mooney says ”it doesn’t necessarily offset the loss of where that acreage was.”
“They did make several concessions to us on a couple key locations of areas that are heavily used” by hunters, Mooney says. “There’s one 300-acre tract that was going to be closed. They gave us access to that, I know lot of folks use it.”
Mooney is further concerned about the lack of infrastructure to handle this predicted influx of tourists, given that, he says, all the hotels already book up at peak season. While the park and preserve designation allowed for an additional 100 acres of parking lots, he says it doesn’t address concerns about over-used trails and other lacking infrastructure. He says there was no economic study done on the area.
“We as a town have grown very well and been in an organic state for all these years,” Mooney says. Fayetteville in particular has long been in a hub for outdoor tourism and recreation. “This just seems like we’re maybe trying to rush it when there’s not enough infrastructure. We’re going to get there anyway—why should we lose hunting privileges for a lot of folks who have grown up in this area?”
Nate “Archy” Archambault, a seasonal fishing and raft guide at ACE Adventure Resort in Oak Hill, is bullish on the designation, as is most of the boating community he knows who make their living—and spend their free time—on the New River. Archambault expects the existing infrastructure, like parking lots, to improve now that his stomping grounds are a national park, but that recreation will mostly stay the same.
“A lot of people want it to be protected,” says Archambault, a Marines Corps veteran and diehard angler. “There are a few people who are nervous about specific put-ins and whether their access will change or become regulated. They want it left alone because of national attention. But I think it’s better to protect it now rather than later.”
Historically, Archambault has seen interest from families and folks who want to enjoy the region’s famed whitewater, with relatively few visitors clamoring for guided fishing trips on the New. If the designation does anything for him personally, it’ll be to raise awareness about his fishing trips. He loves working on the water, and teaching new folks how to fish. Even with the national spotlight, he’s not worried about an influx of anglers blowing up his smallmouth spots.
“The rapids already do a lot of protecting when it comes to the fishing,” Archambault says. “If someone shows up and says, ‘I want to fish this section,’ the question becomes, ‘Do you have a raft? Can you run whitewater?’ And most people can’t.”
Meanwhile Larry Nibert, the owner of fishing and cast-and-blast outfitter the West Virginia Experience, is more skeptical that he’ll see a positive outcome from the designation.
“Personally, not speaking from a business side, anytime we lose that much hunting ground, I’m 100 percent against it,” says Nibert, better known as “Redneck” around town and on the water. “I see no good coming from this as a local. Because those people who stand to gain the most lose the least. There’s a lot of people that go out and hunt those grounds, no matter what Park Service officials say. Those are the only grounds they have to hunt. I just see more regulation coming, and I see the local—not the business owner—the local angler, the private angler, the private boater, stands to lose the most.”
And as far as business ownership does go, Nibert is still “out to lunch” on the designation’s full impact. He operates on seven rivers in the surrounding area, but the New River Gorge is his bread and butter.
“I was doing just fine making a good living for myself and my family, and the families of my staff up to this point,” Nibert says. He also notes that while he has concerns about the designation, representing this region of West Virginia that he calls home is most important. “We’ll see what will happen…You just roll up your sleeves and put your nose down and move forward. I’m a small fish in a big pond just trying to make a living. We can’t stop [the designation] so the wheels are already in motion…What the hell are you going to do? Like it, hate it, or love it, let’s move forward.”