Our Newest National Park Allows Hunting? How Locals Are Keeping the New River Gorge’s Sporting Traditions Intact While Boosting Tourism
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve managed to uphold the hunting and fishing traditions of the region while also getting top billing as a tourist destination. (Nick Kelley /)
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 George 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 public land surrounding the gorge.
Happily, none of that seems to be the case.
Credit for this victory goes to the West Virginians who worked hard to turn their favorite place into a national park—without compromising 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 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 simply because it indicates hunting access: Hunting inside a national park is never allowed, but hunting is permissible inside a national preserve.
Besides the New River Gorge, the only other combination national park and preserve in the Lower 48 is Great Sand Dunes, in Colorado. (Natalie Krebs/)
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, 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.
An outtake from the author's 2019 fishing trip through the New River Gorge National River, now the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. (Nick Kelley /)
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 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 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 and much of the existing infrastructure to support them, you just have to work on your advertising game. 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 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 redesignated 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 the tourism increases 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 United States 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, 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 promotion for its Gateway Arch from a memorial to National Park in 2018, 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 isn’t. The Gateway Arch is missing all the stuff that a national park should offer: sweeping views, plenty of wildlife, and the chance to get lost in a unique landscape.
Arnold is undeniably biased—he answered “absolutely”—but everyone else in the region is proud of the New, too. As an outsider, I can objectively back them up: The New River Gorge is historic and beautiful, with the opportunity for a true, and even dangerous, adventure.
Archambault running a rapid in the heart of the New River Gorge, now the New River Gorge National Park, in 2019. (Nick Kelley /)
Protect the Park, Protect Hunting
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.
Now, because roughly a tenth of the Gorge’s some 70,000 acres were designated as national park, some public land was closed to hunting. That tallies about 7,000 total acres 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. There were, understandably, some hunters who were opposed to the park since it would render their favorite hunting spots unhuntable.
“I think the main gripe is they lost their spot they like to hunt in,” says Wilson. “Yes, there will always be a few that are resistant to any type of change, but that’s a small minority here.”
Both Wilson and Arnold can appreciate the personal hit of losing a favorite hunting spot, but reiterate that the overwhelming majority of public comments were in favor of designation (including a 19-1 vote following public hearings). And, unlike with a private land sale, there’s the small comfort that folks can still visit their favorite spots within the park boundaries even if hunting there is no longer legal.
Most notably, however, the designation 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.”
A fat bronzeback, pulled from the rapids of the New River and released back into its waters. (Nick Kelley /)
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? You keep things mostly the same: hunting is still allowed, and the attitude toward land and water use remains relaxed.
“No fees are being planned,” says Eve West, the chief of interpretation and cultural resources at the new Park. “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.”
This means, for now at least, there will be no entrance fees or primitive camping fees. There are also 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.
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 of folks 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 things will mostly stay the same. And that’s a good thing.
Read Next: Hell or High Water on the New River
“A lot of people want it to be protected,” says Archambault. “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 bring awareness of his fishing trips. He loves teaching new folks how to fish, and getting to work on the water. Even with the new national spotlight, he’s not worried about an influx of folks 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.”
Fortunately, there are a ton of West Virginians who would be happy to take those folks on the New River, and show them how.