FAYETTEVILLE, WV (WOWK) – The New River Gorge National River is home to world class whitewater rafting, rock climbing, hiking, and other outdoor activities.
Bridge Day is a wildly popular event in October that brings tens of thousands of visitors to the area. Dave Bieri is a Supervisory Park Ranger at New River Gorge.
“We are spread out over 53 miles of the river, about 70,000 acres, and there’s a lot of different parts of this park that people don’t always realize is all part of New River Gorge National River,” Bieri explained.
Besides recreation, Bieri said it’s one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the country and is rich in history and culture.
In an effort to boost tourism, Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito introduced a bill last September to make New River Gorge into a national park and preserve.
They held a town hall meeting at New River Gorge last October. Their bill would make the gorge a national park, while preserving areas for hunting and fishing.
“It’s sort of like the gold stamp of tourism and many international and national travelers really travel from national park to national park,” Sen. Capito said.
“So we’re preserving our culture and our traditions but we’re extending it to the national park designation to get more people that will be able to come and see our beautiful state,” said Sen. Manchin.
However, some sportsmen’s groups don’t like the idea. They’re afraid thousands of acres would be closed to hunting.
“Where are these hunters expected to go who have hunted this all their lives with their parents and grandparents? It’s a way of life. It’s a tradition,” said Robert Seay.
The New River Gorge National River sees one and-a-quarter million visitors every year. The senators cited a study saying that elevating an area to national park status can increase visitors by as much as 21 percent.”
Joe Territo of Greensboro, N.C. is one of those visitors.
“The immenseness of it all. Just seeing that is just beautiful and being able to see all four seasons is kind of cool,” Territo said as he admired the gorge from the overlook at the New River Gorge Canyon Rim Visitor Center.
He always stops at New River Gorge on the way to visit his dad in Erie, Pa.
“I just wouldn’t want to see it overwhelmed with so many people that it just kind of loses its exclusivity,” Territo said. “I think that would be one downfall of it. But if it brought in more money for this area, because I know it’s a bit depressed, I think that would be pretty good.”
Heather Johnson owns River Expeditions which offers whitewater rafting, zip lines, cabin rentals and other amenities.
“We really pitch reconnecting and unplugging and relaxing and just enjoying nature,” Johnson said.
She and other business owners have been pushing for New River Gorge to get national park status.
Johnson said the rafting industry has seen a sharp decline in recent years and hopes a national park designation would bring in more visitors.
“A lot of people do have that on their bucket list to visit all the parks in all 50 states and yeah we don’t want to be left out!” she said.
The National Park Service currently has four sites in West Virginia: New River Gorge National River, Bluestone National Scenic River, Gauley River National Recreation Area and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
“You hear of places like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon that are national parks so maybe in some people’s minds that elevates the status of the place,” Bieri said. “But really it’s just a word and if anything, if nothing else, it probably makes it a little more recognizable.”
Manchin said the bill is currently in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A Senate field hearing will be held at Tamarack on Saturday, Feb. 22. Comments collected at the field hearing will be submitted to the committee.
Manchin and Capito said they both hope it moves to the full Senate and can be passed this summer.