Despite our efforts to educate lawmakers about the importance of the New River Gorge National River to hunters, we were unable to guarantee permanent protection for hunting access.
As of last night, hunters now worry about the uncertainty of accessing 4,385 spectacular acres in the lower gorge area of the New River Gorge in West Virginia.
The debate around a designation change of the New River Gorge National River began in the summer of 2019. Spurred on by other recreation users, the move to make the NRG a national park began as a simple name change to help boost tourism, but soon morphed to a National Park & Preserve designation once the NPS made clear it would not allow hunting in this national park. Hunters are able to maintain hunting in most of the preserve, but lost access to over 300 acres.
42 years ago, a similar debate occurred when Congressman Nick Rahall was drafting a bill for the New River Gorge National River. The local rafting industry was in its infancy and a new bridge spanning across the Gorge ensured that travel to the area would be easier. The new park and tourism industry showed promise of helping to diversify a local economy that relied primarily on coal. However, the concern about hunting access was so great that the enabling legislation of the NRG National River mandated public hunting throughout the park. With the designation of the NRG as a National River, a natural balance was set up so that all user groups could thrive. The outdoor recreation tourism industry boomed during the summer and hunters could be found stalking animals through the gorge during the slow seasons of fall, winter and spring.
Yesterday, S.2555, the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve Designation Act, was added as a rider to the fiscal year 2021 omnibus spending package. Unfortunately, we were not informed prior and were blindsided by leadership.
Hunters will maintain access in the Preserve areas of the NRG, forever lose access to more than 300 acres of what are now the National Park areas.
Our West Virginia chapter was formed in the middle of this fight. From the beginning we knew it would be an uphill battle as the bill had the support of the entire West Virginia delegation and economic promise for some of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states.
Although we are extremely disappointed in the results, we did manage a few wins from the original designation plan:
- Hunters will gain access to 368 acres below the Grandview area.
- Hunters will maintain access to the 301 acres around the Bridge Trail area adjacent to Rt. 19.
- The bill authorizes the NPS to bid on 3,711 acres of nearby land to add to the Preserve portion of the park with Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars.
Maybe time will make those small wins feel better, but right now it feels like pittance. We strongly urge our delegation to commit to allocating LWCF dollars to acquire the 3,711 acres and promise to make it accessible to hunters.
We, as a chapter, need to be better the next time we have to fight for public hunting access. Here are the lessons I’ve learned:
- Don’t wait to have an organized base. An active chapter will be much better prepared to save public hunting and fishing access than one in its infancy.
- Collaborate with other conservation and sportsmen groups to form a coalition around an issue.
- Never assume. Always be prepared to educate local, state and federal officials and all local stakeholders with factual images, maps, videos, visual stories, and other materials to defend our position.
- Be active, respectful and provide any clarity should questions raise against your position. Having a clear simple message is key to any successful advocacy campaign.
- You need numbers. If your chapter doesn’t have it you need to put more effort into engaging local hunters that are not BHA members.
- Continue building a relationship with your elected officials. They work for us and need help understanding issues important to their constituency.
- Keep fighting!