Despite some of the beautiful landscapes and great outdoors West Virginia is known for, the state wasn’t home to a national park until last year. Last December, Congress passed a bill that declared the opening of America’s 63rd national park in West Virginia. The move redesignated West Virginia’s New River Gorge from a national river to a federally protected tourist destination: New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
New River Gorge spans over 70,000 acres, but under Congress’ designation act, it will be divided into two sections: the park and the preserve. The park is made up of about 7,000 acres and will include some of the most scenic slivers of waterfront. The remaining 60,000+ acres will make up the preserve, allowing space for people to continue hunting and fishing legally, according to Thrillist.
Additionally, the new law allows for the expansion of the park, including the purchase of 3,700 acres to add to the preserve, the Register-Herald reported.
“I am thrilled that this designation will raise awareness of the great natural resources in my home state and the many opportunities available for outdoor recreation and exploration,” Margaret Everson, counselor to the secretary who is exercising the delegated authority of the National Park Service Director, said. “My love of conservation and the outdoors stems from lifelong experiences hiking, fishing, hunting and camping in West Virginia.”
The decision to designate New River Gorge as a national park was tied to a COVID-19 relief bill. This is because national parks are a source of income due to the tourism attached to them. Despite what its name suggests, New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world at more than 300 million years old.
Efforts to make New River Gorge a national park began with local lawmakers prior to the COVID-19 crisis. According to The Washington Post, state legislators proposed a bill for the change in 2019, arguing the river not only had attractions but great history. “I am thrilled legislation redesignating the National River as a National Park and Preserve is included in this legislative package,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said in a statement. “Redesignation of the National River to a National Park and Preserve will shine a brighter light on West Virginia and all that it has to offer, and provide another catalyst for our tourism industry and local businesses.”
According to the Register-Herald, more than 1 million people visit the area each year for its hiking, rock climbing, rafting, and fishing. As people visit the park and its surrounding areas, local businesses benefit from the tourism as well. Park visitors reportedly spent more than $60 million in nearby communities in 2019, which supported 846 jobs, the Register-Herald reported.
“The New River Gorge is one of West Virginia’s most cherished playgrounds,” Sen. Joseph Manchin said. “The whitewater rafting, hunting, fishing, outdoor sports and natural beauty make it one of our most robust tourist attractions. Over the last two years we have met with outdoorsmen, businesses and local leaders and other interested groups to ensure this designation will promote the beauty and rich history of the New River Gorge while ensuring that the longstanding traditions of hunting and fishing are protected for generations to come,” Manchin continued.
Alongside legislators, local community members and overseers of the park applauded the change. Roger Wilson, president and CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, an outfitter, told The Washington Post that a big aspect of the deal for local communities was making sure to “change as little as possible, in making this shift to a national park.”
Wilson also noted that the change was positive growth for the community. “We’ll all prosper from it,” Wilson said. “I’ve said this all along; to me, this is a long-term gain for the local communities. I’m hoping this will help our company, but my main efforts are for the community as a whole over time.”
West Virginia is not the only state to see some exciting news when it comes to nature. Other states have announced park changes, including changes in names.
A recent law changed the name of local plains tied to former President Jimmy Carter from the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site to the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park on Jan. 22. Established in 1987, the space preserves artifacts of Carter’s presidency and the influence his home town in Georgia had on his life. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sanford Bishop, noted that the changes would allow for not only a tribute to the country’s longest-living president, but preservation of local landmarks, The Atlantic Journal-Constitution reported.
“President Carter has spent his life making Plains, Ga., and America a better place for all and it is fitting that we honor him with this change,” Bishop said in a statement. “The Jimmy Carter National Historical Park will increase tourism in Plains for many years to come, as President and Mrs. Carter desire.”
The change makes the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park Georgia’s third national historical park. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta had a similar name change in 2018.
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