The emergency COVID-19 stimulus bill passed last week was flooded with irrelevant legislation to the pandemic. While much of it was frivolous to everyday life, one exciting section that passed created the U.S’s newest National Park.
New River Gorge in West Virginia was named the country’s 63rd National Park with the bill’s signing. Previously designated as a National River, the park encompasses 73,000 acres of stoke-heavy canyon landscape. More than 65,000 acres of the area is designated as a nature preserve allowing for fishing, hunting, and backcountry hiking.
The designation was first introduced by state senators back in October 2019. Because the area was already a National River, the designation is more of a formality. Trails have been established in the area and many parts of the park have facilities accommodating for outdoor activities like hiking and picnics.
The bill does, however, grant the National Park Service permission to bid on land from surrounding private landowners to build the preserve and in turn, create a larger public land space that can be enjoyed by all.
Environmental protection for the area comes with its new name as well. While the Trump administration has been pushing back against such protection since 2016, an area designated as a National Park bars the wilderness from private ownership, meaning it can’t be purchased by companies.
The area has always been a stronghold for outdoor recreation. New River is a go-to for rafting and boasts class V rapids, which are among the strongest and most technical. Thanks to the area’s canyon, there are thousands of climbing routes that draw in climbers from all over the region. Mountain biking is also popular in the area.
Climbers, rafters, and everyday hikers significantly boost the state’s economy, state officials say. This new designation of “National Park” will bring the Appalachian area an even greater financial boost. Once popular for coal mining, the area’s finances have relied heavily on outdoor recreation. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, in 2017 outdoor recreation generated $9 billion for the state and filled 91,000 direct jobs.
“For so many travelers a National Park designation is a kind of seal of approval; confirmation that the destination is one of the nation’s greatest places and it’s someplace you need to see,” the state’s tourism commissioner Chelsea Ruby said to West Virginia outlet MetroNews. “Now we’re adding this in and I really think it positions West Virginia for tremendous growth in the coming year.”
Ruby highlighted that once a place is put under the National Park umbrella, it draws international attention. This brings tourists from all over the world into the area—something she said the state is excited about.
Some hunters are frustrated with the designation, however, as some areas previously OK'd for hunting will be cut. Julia Peebles, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers government relations manager, told Motherboard in an email while they’re happy about an increase in public lands, BHA hopes the state will ensure all outdoors people will benefit from the designation.
“The provision also authorized the National Park Service to purchase over 3,700 acres of private lands, which could expand the national preserve and hunting access in the Gorge,” Peebles said. “We look forward to working with the West Virginia delegation in ensuring hunting access in the Gorge for future generations, as well as committing to purchasing the 3,700 acres of private lands adjacent to the designated area.”
The NPS declined to comment on the designation.
Officially titled New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the formal changes should begin to take place throughout 2021.