In late 2020, America gained a new addition to its beloved National Park System as West Virginia gained its first. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve expands over 53 square miles of land, featuring steep cliffs as high as 1,600 feet carved by the flowing turquoise New River, the second oldest river in the world. Biodiversity includes endangered species such as the Allegheny woodrat and the Virginia big-eared bat, and the most diverse plant collection of any river gorge in central and south Appalachia. The Park is a paradise for both white water rafters and rock climbers, with long stretches of rapid water movement along the New River and steep canyon walls that offer cliffs for climbing with a view. The Gorge is known for the tradition of Bridge Day, where thousands of people gather on the infamous New River Gorge Bridge every third Saturday in October to watch BASE jumpers plummet and parachute down into the gorge. The park’s new attractions, ecotourism hotspots, and diverse landscape are projected to make an impact on the local West Virginian area in terms of conservation, tourism, and accessibility.
New River Gorge experienced a status change to National Park through the COVID-19 relief bill of December 2020, which provided pandemic emergency relief funding and an update to the national energy policy. Through the bill, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Machin announced the creation of the National Park and Preserve, which in total extends more than 71,000 acres of land. Disagreements came from locals who had previously enjoyed hunting in the New River Gorge area when legislation to give the land national park status was initially announced, because hunting is prohibited on federal land. Consequently, a compromise was reached where the National Park status technically only covers 7,021 acres of land located directly around the river’s gorge, where hunting is prohibited, and the Preserve is designated as the 65,165 surrounding acres, where hunting is allowed.
Some of the most important aspects of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve are the land it conserves and the ecosystems that function within it. The New River and its gorge support extremely diverse plant life because of the wide range of ambient moisture that exists between the river and the rim of the canyon, which extends hundreds of feet above the river. Shrubbery found in the area includes the great rhododendron, the state flower of West Virginia, and varieties of conifers and woodland trees grow from the forest floor to the gorge’s rim. The national park status gives the NPS (National Park Service) better opportunity to manage invasive species that threaten the ecosystem, such as the woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect that is killing the park’s Eastern Hemlock trees, or the Emerald Ash borer, a beetle which feeds on and kills ash trees.
The NPS also recognizes the effects of anthropogenic drivers of environmental change on vulnerable populations in the Park and Preserve’s ecosystem. The ten species of bats that exist in New River Gorge have many benefits to the mountainous ecosystem: similar to birds, they provide pollination and seed dispersal for local flora and fauna, and they also control insect populations so they do not become invasive, like the adelgids or the Ash borers. However, all along Appalachia, bat populations are decreasing at an alarming rate because of White-nose syndrome, which is a dangerous disease that causes bats to wake up more often during winter hibernation, depleting their energy as they use all of their stored fat to fight the disease. In West Virginia, many bats like to hibernate in abandoned mine portals because the temperature inside them stays constant despite freezing winter conditions. In these mine portals, White-nose syndrome can easily spread within and among bat populations. With the conservation benefit of New River Gorge’s new National Park status, the NPS’s work to mitigate the effects of White-nose syndrome on bats living on the New River Gorge land can be more effective. Other wildlife in the Park and Preserve includes bald eagles, copperhead snakes, eastern box turtles, timber rattlesnakes, hellbenders (giant salamanders), peregrine falcons, chipmunks, red and gray foxes, and the white-tailed deer.
There’s no doubt that the tourism industries of surrounding areas such as the small town of Fayetteville, West Virginia will drastically change with the park’s new status. The state of West Virginia is known as one of the largest coal producers in the nation as it sits on top of immense coal deposits which lay under all but two counties in the state. Since its peak in the mid-to-late 1800s, the coal industry has long since been on the decline, and by the 1950s, once prosperous towns along the New River Gorge were mostly abandoned, leaving ghost towns in their place. West Virginia is the 2nd poorest state in the nation, with a total poverty rate of 16% as of 2019 and a median household income $16,862 below the national average. 29% of all children in West Virginia live in a family that is either behind on housing payments or is not eating enough, and this data doesn’t yet include the detrimental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially on low-income communities and communities of color. Logging and coal mining has left some areas around the gorge unlivable, and the environmental degradation seen in the area is striking.
Does New River Gorge National Park and Preserve have the potential to change West Virginia’s poverty? Environmentally, the ecosystem has been observed to start coming back to life in the areas where strip mining and tree logging have drastically changed the landscape. Fayetteville is seeing an increase in demand for housing; the town mayor, Sharon Cruikshank, pointed out to The New York Times, “You can’t find a house for sale in Fayetteville.” NPS officials expect visitation of the Park to increase 20% from visitation before its status change. Previously, around 1.3 million visitors came to the Gorge annually, so this implies an increase of around 260,000 visitors—a number that has the potential to change West Virginia’s tourism industry long-term. Only time will tell if these predictions come to fruition, and how the ecotourism provided by the NPS will affect both local and state economies.
Bringing a National Park to Fayette County—a county which has an average monthly wage of $2,600 compared to the national average of $3,796—also affects the ability of low-income and marginalized communities to be able to enjoy outdoor recreation. Considering the fact that visiting a National Park, or any outdoor recreation site, requires a certain level of income and leisure time, ecotourism services carry a fee which is a barrier that often leaves out poorer communities. By decreasing transportation costs and providing a closer proximity to the Park, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has the potential to increase the accessibility of those living in surrounding areas, including low-income families, to enjoy the Park for the beauty that it is—something those with less money may have never had the chance to experience before on this kind of scale. While many predictions are uncertain and require time to see significant changes, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is already starting to form the new epicenter of West Virginia’s ecotourism industry, bringing revenue to the area, and conserving and protecting land and ecosystems that are in danger—a fundamental goal of the National Park Service itself.
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