Years ago, when I was a somewhat brash young man studying journalism at West Virginia University, I had the incredible, and wonderful, opportunity to be a white-water raft guide. On spring, summer and early fall weekends I led trips down the Cheat and New rivers. It was a heckuva way to make money -- soaking up the natural beauty of West Virginia's mountains and river corridors while having a blast.
The rivers bucked, boiled and rolled through deep canyons they had cut through the mountains, and most of the river miles we paddled were out of sight of roads and development. These days, however, there's an effort under way to build an upscale housing development on the lip of the New River Gorge, which just happens to be home to the New River Gorge National River.
The other day Calvin Hite, superintendent of the national river, took time to write a letter to the Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia, outlining his opposition to the proposal. His comments are worth reading, for they touch on a subject that many of our national parks are facing: sprawl that threatens to diminish the very uniqueness and beauty of these areas.
"Ordinarily I do not respond to personal opinions, but I feel compelled to follow up to that of Mike Tyree published in the Dec. 8 edition entitled 'Housing developments along the gorge will benefit W.Va.'
"I agree with most of Mr. Tyree's beginning remarks about some of the benefits housing developments might bring to a local economy. The National Park Service (NPS) does not object to housing developments proposed for Fayette County, but we are concerned about some of the lots planned on the edge of, and within the New River Gorge. Our analysis of the current layout confirms that adverse impacts to the scenic viewshed of the gorge will result, considering there are no leaves on the trees at least half of the year to provide adequate screening.
"Despite promises not to build within the park's legislative boundary, which in many places falls below the crest of the gorge, construction of houses so close to the boundary can permanently impair the park's scenic values. The cumulative effect of increasing numbers of houses being built over time, along and within the New River Gorge, can negatively affect the experience for thousands who visit each year.
"Sacrificing the borders of this public park for private interests not only jeopardizes the integrity of this unit of our National Park System, but also appears to violate the public trust. According to the 1978 legislation, New River Gorge National River was established for the purpose of 'conserving and interpreting outstanding natural, scenic and historic values and objects in and around the New River Gorge ... '
"Congress also encouraged the use of local zoning, in addition to federal land acquisition, as an appropriate tool to help assure that this purpose is met, 'for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations ...'
"Mr. Tyree correctly implies that park superintendents come and go, but then, so do developers, homeowners and the effectiveness of their subdivision associations. Covenants are helpful, but are no substitute for ensuring the long-term preservation of the national interests 'in and around the New River Gorge.'
"Properly applied and enforced zoning can be used to effectively plan housing and other development needs in an environmentally responsible manner, but they should also protect one of West Virginia's most significant resources, which forms the foundation of this region's multi-million dollar tourism and recreation industry. In contrast to Mr. Tyree's statement that 'organized out-of-state tree huggers' are not creating jobs or investing here, in 2004, the park staff totaled 135 employees, 99 of whom are native West Virginians. These employees include park rangers, maintenance staff, supervisors, secretaries, administrative personnel, resource management specialists and a superintendent.
"A Study of Economic Impact of the New River Gorge National River was recently completed and shows that in the course of this past year, there was over $11 million in total direct spending by the NPS, much of it spent locally within Nicholas, Fayette, Raleigh and Summers counties. Combined with spending by more than 1 million park visitors, the total economic impact was nearly $131 million, supporting about 3,580 jobs.
"Mr. Tyree wrote, 'The people who are developing the gorge understand that they are not selling land, they are selling natural beauty and, if they do anything to destroy the natural beauty of the gorge, the value of their product goes down.' The phrase 'their product' seems to illustrate a very self-serving view (pun intended), accommodating a privileged few at the expense of the broader taxpaying public.
"Mr. Tyree asks, 'Just what are we preserving it (the Gorge) for? If we want people to enjoy the New River Gorge, what better way than to allow them to enjoy the view from their own back deck?' Apparently, the enjoyment of the natural beauty of the gorge by the general public, as Congress clearly intended, is of little concern.
"New River Gorge National River is not a private sanctuary or preserve. Stretching from Hinton to Hawks Nest, it is part of the family of national park areas which include such icons as Yellowstone (the first in the world), Great Smoky Mountains, Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, Grand Canyon, and Gettysburg. Only through an act of Congress or by presidential proclamation, can an area be added to the National Park System. Local citizens, through their congressional delegation, succeeded in getting this nationally, and globally significant resource designated. It is paid for, maintained and protected using funds from every American taxpayer.
"The NPS is sensitive to Fayette County's goals to diversify its economic base, and will continue to support them, as long as those goals do not compromise the greater public value of the New River Gorge and the national park that lies within it."
I'm not sure what the answer is to this sort of dilemma. Private property rights are involved, but so, too, is the natural beauty that Congress has seen fit to set aside for the enjoyment of all generations. Trophy homes hanging over the gorge would indeed take away from its raw beauty. If housing is allowed, will commercial development follow? Must our national parks be rimmed by development and, in the process, be placed in a bell jar?
New River Gorge National River is the focus of this post, but similar circumstances exist elsewhere in the country. There's a proposal to build a similar high-end housing project overlooking Glen Canyon Dam National Recreational Area, and various extents of urban sprawl are encroaching on national battlefields, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, and dozens of other areas.
Too much sprawl slowly, but surely, will choke these wonderful areas, and take away a good measure of what makes them so special.
(Photos courtesy of National Park Service)