While Americans continue to weather the pandemic, the $ 2.3 trillion coronavirus relief and spending bill passed by the federal government in December brought an unexpected and lasting gift: a new national park.
The 5,593-page package of expenses included a number of provisions that approved little-known projects – for example, the construction of the Teddy Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota – and allowed lawmakers to move forward with a number of long-delayed initiatives. Among them was the elevation of the New River Gorge in southern West Virginia to Yellowstone, Yosemite and the other most famous outskirts of the country. Designation of the area – approximately 72,000 acres of land flanking 53 miles of the gorge – as a national park and conservation area creates the 63rd national park in the United States and completes a cross-generational effort begun in the mid-20th century to restore a tired industrial area a national landmark.
“Later that year, when those big bills were falling, I decided to go on strike,” said Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican and junior state senator who co-introduced the New River Canyon legislation with Senator Joe Manchin III, a Democrat that year 2019.
“This was the right opportunity,” she said.
A win for rafters, kayakers, and other outdoor enthusiasts
The gorge and its surroundings have been valued as one of the most spectacular natural spots in southern West Virginia for decades.
In 1963 the West Virginia House of Representatives passed a resolution designating the New River Gorge as a “national playground” to send the proposal to President John F. Kennedy, whose main campaign was significantly overturned by the support of West Virginia voters . However, following the assassination of Mr. Kennedy later that year, the momentum to create a national recreation area stalled.
Though the gorge remained a curiosity among rafters and outdoor enthusiasts, the area wasn’t granted federal protection by the Interior Ministry until 1978 when it was designated a national river.
Now the outdoor activities in the gorge define the area as the main destination for adventure sports in the east.
The New River drops 750 feet over 66 miles, resulting in long stretches of violent rapids that can reach a Class 5 that is widely considered to be the most difficult to navigate by whitewater boating enthusiasts. (Licensed outfitters work in several towns near the river, offering rentals and tours for rafting and kayaking.)
The canyon walls, which are up to 1,600 feet high, feature miles of cliffs that are some of the best climbing areas on the east coast. Sheer faces in the gorge made of robust Nuttall sandstone offer both traditional and sporty climbing routes for all levels of difficulty.
The cycle routes are spread across the park on both sides of the river and offer opportunities for technical mountain biking as well as casual pedaling along former railway beds.
A look into the past
According to the National Park Service, geologists believe that the New River – its name is a misnomer used by early American explorers who often gave the same name to every river they first encountered – a section of the preglacial Teays River was. This larger river, which crossed much of the current Ohio River watershed, was later diverted and broken up by glaciers. The age of the Teays is uncertain, but fossil evidence suggests they could be up to 320 million years old, leaving what is left behind, the New River, possibly the second oldest river in the world.
Beyond millions of years of geological history, the gorge is also full of signs of the region’s heritage as a key hub for coal production.
Miners once took advantage of the easy access to rich deposits of high-quality hard coal in the gorge, in which the river had already pierced several hundred meters of rock. Especially after the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway connected the New River Coal Fields to the Markets in 1873, dozen of booming riverside towns popped up and flourished well into the 1920s.
A coal mine was still operating in the gorge in 1963, said Dave Arnold, a state tourism commissioner who ran a rafting company for more than 40 years.
“In ’76 or ’77 if you were in my boat we would have swum down the river and I would have shown you, ‘Here is an old coal drop, this is the old hotel in Caperton, here is this and that,'” he said.
The demand for coal at the turn of the 20th century was so high that there were cities every half mile along the river, according to Park Service. However, when the industry declined, many were abandoned as early as the 1950s, leaving ghost towns dotted across the gorge. In addition, logging in the late nineteenth century exposed large parts of the gorge and cleared enormous parts of the jungle.
The park contains the remains of communities like Nuttallburg and Kaymoor that still stand near the riverbank and are accessible from higher points. Seams of exposed coal are visible on some of the trails leading into the gorge and its towns, where abandoned mine portals and the foundations of coke ovens remain.
Restoring an ecosystem with diverse wildlife
Despite the degradation and pollution caused by the industry, some unique ecological features make the canyon well-suited to a diverse combination of wildlife that has slowly re-emerged over time.
The river sits in the middle of a migratory corridor that brings together plants and animals that are typically further north or south, including several federally endangered and threatened species such as the Great-eared bat and Allegheny Woodrat.
The river itself is also significantly warmer than the surrounding areas, according to Lizzie Watts, the park’s superintendent, making it a popular hot-water fishing destination with more than a dozen public access points. The river is one of the best places for black bass fishing on the east coast, and muscle lung and walleye are common in the park today.
“The next generation will have the opportunity to see what it looks like over the past 150 years when an area is no longer cut down and quarried and left alone,” said Ms. Watts. “The ecosystem has returned to full trees and mature forests.”
When federal protection went into effect after the park service began patrolling the area as a national river in 1978, wildlife has largely recovered and many see the opportunity to showcase the area’s natural elegance.
“It’s just very exciting to demonstrate our climbing and our availability of extreme sports in this area,” Ms. Capito said of what she called “kind of a wild and wonderful part of our state.”
‘The best of the best’
Founded in 1916, the National Park Service monitors more than 400 areas across the country, including national monuments, coastlines, and battlefields, and parks that collectively cover more than 85 million acres.
While the new title for the New River Gorge does not fundamentally change the day-to-day operations of the area, both lawmakers and the Park Service regard “national parks” as the crown jewels of the park system – a protection granted to some of the largest and most valuable areas in the country .
“National park status is usually seen as the cream of the crop,” said Ms. Watts. “But it’s really just another of those names.”
New River Gorge is not the size of many national parks in the western United States, with Death Valley, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone each stretching over 1 million acres.
Even so, officials expect the new designation to bring a significant influx of travelers, in part carried by a dedicated group of enthusiasts eager to visit each national park.
According to the Park Service’s tourism data, around 1.3 million travelers visit the gorge in typical years. Based on studies of other areas that have received national park status, Ms. Capito assumes that the number of visitors will increase by up to 20 percent.
“It feels like the very first phase of transformation for the entire area,” said Becky Sullivan, executive director of the New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I’ll be very, very interested to see where we are in about 10 years.”
Maintaining the community and their favorite pastimes
As unique outdoor attractions gain more national visibility across the Appalachian region, concern has grown over the idea of an affluent and mobile set trampling the communities outside of the state adjacent to these locations.
West Virginia is still the second poorest state in the country, according to the United States Census Bureau, according to the United States Census Bureau. And while tourism has brought prosperity to the areas around the gorge, it has also changed the makeup of neighboring communities as more and more people visit the park or settle nearby.
Interest in the natural offerings around the park has brought slow but measurable changes to small towns nearby like Fayetteville. Officials say the emergence of remote working during the pandemic has only accelerated the trend for properties in the area to be repurposed for vacation rentals and outsiders buying second homes.
“You can’t find a house for sale in Fayetteville because they’re in high demand,” said Sharon Cruikshank, the city’s mayor. “So that definitely changed the budgeting of the city and the district.”
When legislation was introduced to designate the area as a national park, the backlash came from some locals. Hunters have long had access to remote stretches of forest around the gorge, and since hunting is banned in federal parks, some have protested the possible loss of thousands of acres of hunting grounds.
In a compromise, more than 65,000 acres of the total area have been designated as a nature reserve where hunting can continue as before, and only about 7,000 acres directly inside the canyon are officially banned as national park land. A provision has been included that will allow the park to acquire more than 3,000 acres of private land around its current boundaries, expand the size of the reserve, and add public hunting areas.
In keeping with tradition, the legislation also enshrines the right of visitors to continue using one of the park’s most famous features – the New River Gorge Bridge – at least once a year.
BASE jumping, an extreme sport in which jumpers jump off elevated structures or cliffs, is prohibited in any other national park.
However, since 1980, BASE jumpers have been allowed to fall from the top of the 876-foot bridge and parachute towards the river once a year on bridging day, which takes place on a Saturday in October. Legislation designating the area as a national park enables this tradition to be continued.
According to Ms. Sullivan, up to 100,000 people typically come to watch the jumpers jump, which gives businesses in the region an important boost. The event was only canceled twice, including last year due to the coronavirus.
Bridge Day organizers advise jumpers that the only reliable way to land safely is to land directly in the river. In normal years, hundreds do so, often several times that day, sliding down and gently hitting the waters of the New River.