Can Blackwater Falls Area of West Virginia Support A National Park?

There's a renewed effort to gain national park designation for the Blackwater Falls area of West Virginia, including Dolly Sods. Top photo by Tim Kiser, lower photo by Sharon Dalton via National Wildlife Federation.

We have in the past touched on the possibility of the Blackwater Falls area of West Virginia being added to the National Park System, and an effort to achieve that status is resurfacing.

The February newsletter of the Friends of Blackwater Canyon talks of a High Allegheny National Park that would encompass not just the falls but "the scenic grandeur of Dolly Sods, Canaan Valley, Spruce Knob, Seneca Rocks and the Blackwater Canyon. Some areas will be in the park and others buffered by the park."

As with other efforts to create national parks, the Friends of Blackwater point to the resulting economic benefits such a park would bring to West Virginia. They also note, fortunately, the resource benefits that would be extended.

"High Allegheny National Park will promote clean watershed development and protect the pristine headwaters of the Potomac, Monongahela, and Greenbrier rivers; and will protect endangered species and sensitive ecological habitats," reads the newsletter.

The friends group also points out that no new public lands would be necessary to create a High Allegheny National Park, that it could be "created from existing federal lands, with hoped-for participation by the State of West Virginia. Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area will anchor the park. Other public land in the region will be joined together in common management, providing a rich and coordinated tapestry of outdoor experience for visitors from across the nation."

Having spent eight years in West Virginia earlier in my life, I can attest to the beauty of this area, both that of Blackwater Falls specifically as well as the surrounding Monongahela National Forest, the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, and the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks area. This is an incredible outdoor playground, with opportunities for hiking, backpacking, backcountry skiing, climbing, paddling, birding, and more.

The 17,371-acre Dolly Sods Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest is a particularly interesting landscape, one normally found much farther north in Canada. Here you'll find not only rock outcrops but also bog and heath eco-types, according to forest officials.

Is a national park needed? As Friends of Blackwater notes, the area already is protected to a large degree. But addition to the park system would bring some greater protections for the existing natural resources. It also would bring greater attention to the area, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your viewpoint.

Comments

1. Land acquisition is not the only cost. There is the cost of personnel. Furthermore, roads and structures also incur costs. The National Park Service is already spread too thin. In today's political climate, the National Park Service will be lucky to maintain its current budget and will probably have its budget cut.

2. As far as "resulting economic benefits"? This is an often-used claim made whenever something like this is being promoted.

Financially, the idea of a National Park here is questionable.

I see nothing wrong with the current mixed configuration of National Forest, National Rec Area, and State Parks. These designations have provided the area with a high degree of environmental protection will still allowing the public to freely access these areas. In my experience, the creation of a National Park only ramps of development and marketing of particular areas, while restricting the use of others. Leave it, I say!

I have been a frequent visitor to the entire area, especially Canaan Valley, for over 50 years. I have witnessed the charm and the remoteness of the area decline as it has been developed.
Members of my family are still land owners in the Valley and my father was born there. We have watched the ill-effects of the problems associated with the commercialization of the Valley over the years. I can understand the effort of some residents to further develop the area due to vested interests in the the increased development of the area and the influx of support businesses. Tucker County has very little employment and a number of people would stand to gain significantly from increased employment opportunities. I would like to refer to the quotation from the Friends of Blackwater Canyon. They allege that the creation of the proposed High Allegheny National Park "will promote clean watershed development and protect the pristine headwaters of the Potomac et. al " rivers in the watershed. If the area is to be kept pristine, wouldn't it make more sense to curb development rather then increase it ? I have seen what "good" intentions can do. Can anyone name an area that has become "pristine" with the introduction of mankind? Increased development will only serve to ruin the unique character of the area. LEAVE IT ALONE !

Studies of the National Park system show they produce huge return on investment. The latest study in 2005 showed American taxpayers spent $2.6 billion on the National Park System and the return on their investment was more than $12 billion.

And while NPS payroll and benefit spending is important and it creates additional jobs, 70 percent of the National Park Service impact on personal income comes from visitor spending; 30 percent comes from NPS payroll and benefit spending. The referenced study documented 23,978 NPS jobs plus another 11,212 jobs related to NPS payroll and benefit spending and 211,200 jobs because of visitor spending in gateway regions.

Bigger still is the fact that in virtually every park in the USA national park protection has proved to be critical to avoid big costs down the road: saving ecosystems which have value, avoiding uncontrolled development in wilderness settings, avoiding drilling and fossil fuel removal and the enormous impact and costs this produces, and ENABLING all citizens to enjoy the managed assets, and not just privileged or local classes. This latter issue is a social justice and equity benefit of national parks. WIlderness and outdoor enjoyment benefits should acrue to all people, not just those that have used the resource before and want to "protect it from others" which is code speech for "discrimination and privilege". Creating infrastructure to allow all folks to visit and enjoy the outdoors is part of what the national park system has done brilliantly in the past 100 years.

National parks are a popular budget to cut by the far right, along with education and infrastructure, which is why we have underinvested in our natural assets in recent decades. It is time to fully fund and add new land to our park system. We lag some third world countries in the amount of land set aside for restricted development believe it or not.

Anyone that thinks national park status have not protected all our great assets -- yosemite, yellowstone, grand canyone, the list goes on -- and have "cost too much money" are failing to see the benefit of protection and the wisdom of protecting early rather than too late.

Make it a national park.

This area of the country is also one of my favorites. I have spent many trips in this area especially Seneca Rocks. I have hiked to the top as well as learned to Kayak in the snow run off from our friend Dapster. This place is wild and wonderful as West Virginia states. With all the access allowed today and the fact that this area is self sustaining as is why mess it up with more big government restrictions and loopholes that would eventually close it to the public.

Contrary to some of the comments here, the area of the proposed High Allegheny National Park is not well protected. Only a small portion of the Monongahela National Forest is permanently protected from destructive activities. The heart of Blackwater Canyon is not protected at all -- it is owned by a private land developer who has proposed significant developments in the past. And converting the national forest into a national park would probably save money for American taxpayers.

Most of the Monongahela National Forest is open to logging, oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, crop production, industrial wind power facilities, power line corridors, and other destructive activities. Roadless areas not designated as wilderness are not guaranteed permanent protection from these activities. Sierra Club included the Monongahela National Forest in its 2004 “Wildlands at Risk” report because of logging threats. In 2009, the Forest Service and BLM announced plans to auction off oil and gas leases in the Monongahela National Forest, a part of which lies within the Spruce Knob Unit of the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area. The agencies put the planned drilling on hold after protests by conservationists, but there is no guarantee that it will not be revived in the future.

The owner of the Blackwater Canyon inholding is apparently willing to sell his land to the public. The idea has gained significant public support, but acquisition efforts have thus far not been successful. In the meantime, the landowner has been logging, roadbuilding, and real-estate development activities for portions of the property.

The proposed national park would phase out commodity extraction and other damaging activities on national forest lands, and help to build public support for acquisition of the Blackwater Canyon tract.

As for the cost, other than the acquisition of the Blackwater Canyon tract (3,000 acres), the establishment of a national park would probably save the taxpayers money. The Monongahela National Forest already has logging, roadbuilding, oil and gas drilling, and other activities that are subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. There are more costs to mitigate the damage these activities do to the environment. There are already more than enough roads and there are campgrounds and other visitor facilities -- though not of the same quality as a national park. All of this is managed by a considerable staff.

A national park would not subsidize environmental destruction. This means no foresters, oil, gas and mining geologists, range "scientists," road engineers, and roadbuilders (it would no doubt get rid of excess roads, not build more). It would also not need to spend large amounts of money trying to fix the damage done by these activities. A national park would hire naturalists, biologists, outdoor education specialists, recreation specialists, and law enforcement specialists. So there is simply no basis for assuming that a national park would cost more. It would probably cost much less.

What about designating it as a National Monument, but then leaving management to USFS & Monongahela NF?

More than a handful of western National Monuments & National Recreation Areas are officially managed by BLM, and at least 2 are managed by USFS. My understanding is that for the most part, the designation affords a bit more permanence of current protection (not more stringent protection), and substantially more visibility, but provides little or no additional resources to the area (although a couple of BLM-managed National Monuments get a bit of unofficial natural resource monitoring help from NPS I&M networks).

Tomp2, I've seen what National Forest versions of National Monuments can be like. Clear cutting like that done in Misty Fjords National Monument would be awful for any forest area you're trying to protect. But perhaps each non-NPS monument can have its own charter specific to that location.

The previous articles were well written and interesting to read. I have just a couple of comments. I hope the land is acquired in Blackwater Canyon and the land is not logged. That would be a shame. As for the other areas mentioned, do they not already enjoy protection from destructive activities? They have been designated as State Parks, or nationally protected areas of some sort or another. I don't understand the remarks of Mr. Ken when he writes " Wilderness and outdoor enjoyment benefits should acrue to all people, not just those that have used the resource before and want to "protect it from others" which is code speech for "discrimination and privilege". The proposed areas are open to all and I am not aware of anyone that has a protectionist attitude toward the proposed National Park status. I believe that the lead question of this article is "Can Blackwater Falls Area of West Virginia Support A National Park? " I read about protecting the area, which is well and good, and the economic viability and return on investment, but what about the area being able to SUPPORT a national park. If it is built....will they come ?

Hi Tomp2,

This is a possibility, and it does provide more permanence. However, as you point out, this approach provides less stringent protection than a National Park and would bring little or no additional resources. Furthermore, I would disagree with you about providing more visibility. With a couple of exceptions, I doubt that many people can name any of the National Monuments and National Recreation Areas under BLM or U.S. Forest Service (USFS) management.

In fact, there is already a USFS National Recreation Area in the proposed park -- Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks NRA. It is little known, it has minimal public facilities and programs, and it is open to logging, livestock grazing, mineral extraction, and other damaging activities. The failure of the USFS to properly manage this area is why it is in the High Allegheny National Park proposal.

There are other examples of how designating National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Scenic Areas, National Conservation Areas, and other special areas and leaving them under their current multiple use land agencies does not work well.

In New Mexico, Valles Caldera National Preserve is being proposed for transfer from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service because it is allowing livestock grazing, allowing only limited public use, and commercializing the area. See http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2010/01/missing-system-valles-caldera-national-preserve5178

In Washington, citizens are proposing the transfer of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Preserve from the USFS to the NPS because the Forest Service has cut back its already inadequate funding for public education and recreation programs. This is an example of an area that is well known, but it is because of Mount St. Helens; I'll bet hardly anyone outside the area knows that it is not a National Park System unit. See http://www.npca.org/magazine/2009/spring/from-the-ashes.html

Finally, in Utah, Grand Staircase National Monument is the "crown jewel" of the BLM National Landscape Conservation System. This, and the controversy surrounding its designation, makes it another fairly well-known area. Unfortunately, the area is not well protected. The National Monument is threatened by logging, livestock grazing, oil and gas development, and uncontrolled off-road motor vehicles. The BLM's proposed Upper Kanab Creek Watershed Vegetation Management Project would destroy old-growth pinon and juniper trees on over 50,000 acres, including lands proposed for wilderness designation. The BLM plans to use toxic herbicides, hand tools, and large mechanical equipment to eliminate 90 to 100 percent of the trees in the area. A coalition of conservation organizations opposes this project, strongly disputing BLM claims that it would reduce catastrophic wildfire and “rehabilitate” vegetation. See http://www.grandcanyontrust.org/news/2010/02/conservation-groups-ask-blm-to-halt-tree-destruction-in-grand-staircase-nm/

Off-road vehicle abuse is another big problem at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Monument has 553 miles of off-road motor vehicle “trails.” Moreover, off-road use is poorly regulated. In 2009, off-road vehicle advocates staged an illegal rally and drove up the Pariah River corridor, a roadless area proposed for wilderness designation. With its inadequate staff and weak mandate, the BLM was unable to stop the rally. See http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/greenspace/2009/05/raucous-offroad-rally-revs-in-river.html

As you can see, I am not a big supporter of USFS and BLM National Monuments and other special areas. I think they actually undermine the National Park System by giving people the impression of protection while being only somewhat better than the status quo. I think High Allegheny deserves nothing less than full National Park protection.

Best regards,
Michael

Whenever I drive through West Virginia, I think, "Man, how can this state not have a national park?" A beautiful place. I hope this happens.

Michael, thanks for the informative post--that was a great read.

I say make it a park! I agree with Michael Kellett in that the area is not very well protected. There are many endemic species of plants and animals living in that are that receive no protection. There is a species of salamander that is declining because of the clear-cutting practices of the USFS. I may be a little biased because I do work for the NPS, but I do feel that we are better equipped to protect that area, and it does need protection! I know that we need trees, goodness knows I love my books, but not at the cost of losing so many species that can never be replaced. I grew up in that area, visiting Blackwater Falls every year, and I do not want it lost.

Hi justinh,

You're welcome!

Best,
Michael

addressing the comment, "Man, how can this state not have a national park?"
The state has Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the New River Gorge National River (which also oversees the Gauley River National Recreation Area and the Bluestone National Scenic River- although not technically a "park" designation)

I know that you are being positive and I love that, just want to clarify that WV does have NPS land, not sure about HFNHP but as for the NRGNR there is at least 90,000 acres within the boundaries.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment and question this proposal. When I
first saw the region now proposed as the High Allegheny National Park 43 years
ago, I thought, "This area should be a national park!" But there is a huge
problem that has not been mentioned. At
http://www.rpa.org/northeastlandscapes/initiative.php?id=153 you'll find a nice
general map of the proposed park. Looks good! But when I spread out my
Monongahela NF map out, I see that about half of this area is private land. It
includes towns, villages, farms and major developments. How do you propose to
deal with this fact? Are you proposing for the feds to condemn and purchase all
that land? Or are you proposing a spotty, Swiss-cheese park riddled with
inholdings? Wouldn't the latter be a travesty of a national park, considering
that elsewhere, great efforts are made to acquire inholdings to prevent the kind
of development that already exists in the proposed High Allegheny
Park?

Another problem is hunting. I would love to see a national park
with reintroduced wolves and cougars to control the present overpopulation of
deer. But would local residents support a ban on human hunting? A national
preserve has been suggested as an alternative, but IMHO a poor alternative
because being able to get up close to wild animals because they are not hunted
is a major attribute of national parks.

Everybody wins with the multiple use policy for the land proposed for this national park.
A national park can end up shutting down hunting and proper managed timbering; bring on the spector of eminent domain for local residents, and the possible reintroduction of wolves onto land already overrun with coyotes.
Less federal control, not more. This is our backyard and we like it the way it is!