I pushed my way through the rhododendron and stepped out on the rock. It is uneven footing and close to the edge, but I have been here many times and I felt pretty safe. From this view point I can look down into the gorge and up and down river. Although far below me I could see the river is fairly high and more brown than green. Every time I look at this river, New River, I have the same thought. I am reminded this river is like an old friend that I have neglected. We were close friends years ago and saw each other almost every day. Somehow life and other demands got in the way and we rarely see each now, I could do better, but for whatever reason I don’t make the effort. O well, that isn’t what I came to talk to you about today.
On my vantage point from the rock, I gaze out on the gorge and think about how strange this seems. I have stood in this place many times, sometimes while actually hunting, usually just looking during a woods walk or maybe listening for turkeys. From the rock I know I can hear any turkey that might choose to gobble while I am listening. Some might be in range where I could think about going to them, but in truth most will be across the gorge or so far away I don’t even think about joining them. Still, I like to hear them and know I can hunt them if I have the fortitude.
No amount of fortitude will help me now if I want to hunt in this place. The area around my observation rock on the New River Gorge in Fayette County, West Virginia is now closed to hunting and I suppose it always will be. It wasn’t always like this.
In 1978 the New River in West Virginia from approximately Bluestone Dam at Hinton to Hawks Nest Dam was designated as a National River and became part of the National Park system. It is important to remember that a National River, like a National Recreation Area, a Wild and Scenic designation, or a National Monument are all areas administered by the National Park Service, but the are not a “National Park”. A National Park, like Yellowstone or Glacier, or the Great Smokey Mountains have their own rules and protections and are different from the other areas under the Park Service jurisdiction. The big difference here is that hunting would be allowed in a National River designation. At the time of the original legislation in 1978, West Virginians in Fayette and surrounding counties wanted the river to have protection, but a big concern with the National Park Service coming into the area was this, would you still be allowed to hunt in this area?
Many people that were around at the time remember the common consensus was the area did not meet the standards of a National Park. (some would say it still does not) There were too many old buildings close to the river, the water quality was not the best, and there were other coal industry problems near the river. Long story short, it was decided that the National Park Service title of a “National River” would protect the area (which it did) and also allow hunting in the area, which local citizens were very concerned about.
Well, times change. For the past several years there has been a push (much of it from whitewater rafting companies) to make at least part of the New River Gorge area a National Park. Proponents for this claim having a National Park in the area will bring more tourism to the area.
Some of you may be surprised (as I was) to learn not everyone in the tourism related community welcomed this move. There are fishing guides, kayakers, rock climbers, and others in the tourism business that are uneasy about this change. Some see the area becoming a National Park as the federal government gaining more control of the area and not in a good way. Some of the concerns are will there be more stringent regulations in the park? Will we see new entrance and parking fees? Will there be more control over things like private river trips, hiking, and rock climbing? For these and many other reasons there are many questions, some in the tourism industry feel that the existing infrastructure, parking lots and other facilities, cannot handle the traffic on a busy weekend now. What will be the result if the new designation does bring in more visitors? Many feel the land was protected by the 1978 National River designation and saw no reason to change it.
In the end many of these issues do not involve hunting at all, but I saw it as my duty to bring this to light and be a voice for hunter access on public land. Again, when the 1978 bill was passed making this a National River and bringing the National Park Service to the area, this was one of the biggest questions that local people had. Would we still be able to hunt in the New River Gorge and on the land up and down the river which now would be claimed by the Park Service. In short, we were told hunting would still be allowed here and always would be. Well, somehow that changed.
It is cold and snowy as I stand here on my rock and gaze out over the New River Gorge. I know I can still come here and push through the Rhododendron, look at the river, and maybe hear a turkey. I can do all that but I can’t legally hunt here anymore.
Just like that, it is gone.
Larry Case writes an outdoor column for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Reach him via e-mail at Larryocase3@gmail.com