Over the years there has been passing interest in adding a wild and scenic corner of West Virginia to the National Park System, and in the coming weeks the National Park Service will begin to take a look to see if the area in question is suitable for inclusion.
Most of the lands being surveyed fall within the Monongahela and George Washington national forests in the eastern part of the state, while some currently lie within state parks.
Perhaps it's not a surprise that there's some opposition to the proposal. Hunting groups see talk of a High Allegheny National Park as a move that will shut them out of some of their favorite hunting areas.
"The National Park Service is eyeing important hunting lands for inclusion in a large new West Virginia park unit. Apparently the agency is looking at establishing this new unit – the High Allegheny National Park — in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia," wrote Bill Horn, director of federal affairs for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, in an early December blog entry.
"Most of the land under review is presently part of the Monongahela National Forest and Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge – both of which have long hunting traditions," he went on. "Hunters and anglers need to watch this park study, and NPS, like a hawk. The agency is historically hostile to hunters, becoming increasingly hostile to anglers, and is flat out opposed to wildlife and habitat management (both activities are important on Forest and Refuge lands). Plus, almost all NPS units are 'parks' where hunting is prohibited. Having NPS take over management of wonderful hunting areas within the forest, like Spruce Knob and Dolly Sods, sends shivers down this hunter’s spine."
But Mr. Horn, and others who have criticized the consideration of a national park for West Virginia, are jumping the gun, says Judy Rodd, executive director of Friends of Blackwater Canyon and a driving force behind Friends of High Allegeheny National Park & Preserve.
Within the National Park System are many "preserves" where hunting is allowed, Ms. Rodd noted.
“We’ve always said 'park and preserve.' Probably the largest part would be in the preserve status," she said, adding, quickly, that "it’s premature to say we could even have a park.”
Right now the Park Service has only agreed, at the request of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, to conduct an initial survey to see the landscape and what is contained within, Ms. Rodd said.
“Is this feasible? Is it worthy? Do we have the right stuff?” she said. As discussions around those questions take place, Ms. Rodd added, "We want the hunters at the table, we want the kayakers, we want the bikers.”
West Virginia is an incredibly beautiful state, and one with rich cultural and American history, too. After all, the state was cleaved from Virginia "out of the crucible of the Civil War," and there are many traces of both the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and the French and Indian War in the state, notes Ms. Rodd. Some of these sites could be touched, directly or indirectly, through a national park, she said.
“We envision that the Park Service could promote” Civil War tourism in the area, said Ms. Rodd. "You could enhance visitorship to a lot of parts that aren’t owned by the federal government but which would benefit.”
Last February the Friends of Blackwater Canyon discussed a High Allegheny National Park that might be as large as 750,000 acres and could encompass not just Blackwater Falls State Park, 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."
Areas of the state that might be included in such a park, the group said, include:
• Magnificent Spruce Knob – the highest peak in West Virginia.
• Superlative Seneca Rocks – a sheer, 1000 foot rock face challenges climbers.
• Beloved Blackwater Falls – a West Virginia treasure, now open to the world.
• Awesome Otter Creek Wilderness – a pristine mountain stream valley.
• Spectacular Smoke Hole – a series of fascinating caves along the Potomac’s South Branch
• Cherished Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge - the gem of the Valley.
• Distinguished Dolly Sods – Canadian tundra and heath amid superlative, wild landscapes.
At the same time, work currently is under way in West Virginia to blaze a new highway east to west across this general area, and there are concerns about how that project, and the increased traffic, might impact the area.
"I think the preservation of the history is not happening at all. One of the things about West Virginia, because the terrain has been so difficult, we are not overrun with a lot of stuff. We’ve just been lucky. Why would you build a McDonald's when you’re going to get 10 people a day?" said Ms. Rodd.
However, Corridor H will "just make it easier for lots of people to come. Now we have to think about preserving these landscapes," she said. "Another part of our proposal that could help with an issue like that is having a Heritage Area layer on top of the park and the private lands. There are lots of private lands. If you had a Heritage Area you could encourage, through a funding mechanism, preservation of private lands.”
At Sen. Manchin's request, the Park Service will conduct a Reconnaissance Study of the general area to see if it merits a more detailed resource evaluation for possible inclusion into the park system.
"It's the first, most informal and highest in the clouds quick overview of the resources and making both some decisions on whether the resources are likely to meet the criteria for new parkland," Allen Cooper, the chief of park planning and special studies for the Park Service's Northeast Region, said of the reconnaissance study.
"The area that the senator has asked us to look at is fairly large and rich in resources," Mr. Cooper said. "We will take an overview that will take about a year, start to finish, to identify resources, to talk to some of the principal stakeholders in the survey area, to share information. Basically, it's a way for them to share their information and knowledge about the resources.”
Part of the study, which could cost upwards of $25,000, would determine whether similar resources already exist within the park system, said Mr. Cooper.
"If the survey finds that it (the proposed landscape) is likely to meet the criteria, we will be using the results to refine the area that might be defined in the Special Resource Study," he said, adding that the agency would only conduct the more intensive resource study if Congress directed it to via specific legislation.
“The Special Resource Study usually takes a couple of years, is authorized by legislation," he said. “The Reconnaissance Survey is to screen out the things that are unlikely to meet the criteria if you go to the full resource study.”
While the upcoming survey hasn't received much attention beyond the Mountain State, inside West Virginia it has generated much discussion and debate. Among the concerns raised is that national park designation could remove from the public landscape lands now open to hunters.
Media in the state have reported that Sen. Manchin "would never support legislation that might curb hunting" and envisions the area as a national preserve, with hunting allowed, "but not as a full-fledged national park."
Back at the Park Service, Mr. Cooper said if the agency does a full-blown special resource study, that document would "recommend" what designation might best fit the area.
“The Park Service reserves the right, regardless of what the (congressional) request specifically asks for, we reserve the right to recommend what kind of unit it might meet the criteria for," he said "We would certainly evaluate it as what the request requested, but if there’s something that’s more appropriate, that fits the bill better, we can recommend that it be studied as it goes forward.”
Traveler postscript: To learn more about the High Allegheny initiative, visit this website.