Robert Seay has been hunting in the New River Gorge since he was born, nearly. His family has hunted there for almost a century.
“It’s just a beautiful place, I mean something about watching the fog rise, hearing the roar of the river and watching the sunset,” said Seay, a fishing and hunting guide in Southern West Virginia. “It’s not just about the hunting. The deer or the game is just a bonus. It’s doing what your family’s done where you learned to do it.”
Seay’s decades-long family tradition is changing due to a new park designation for the area.
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The New River Gorge was originally given federal protection as a National River in 1978. Last year, it became West Virginia’s first National Park and Preserve from year-end appropriations legislation.
Advocates for the new designation say the name will bring more visitors and valuable tourism dollars to the area.
“With proximity to major metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Richmond, Charlotte, and other major cities, the New River Gorge has the potential to attract new tourists and thrill-seekers to the Gorge and the region as a whole,” wrote U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in a joint op-ed published in the Beckley Register-Herald on Dec. 22, 2020. “The potential economic impact for surrounding communities and the entire state is boundless.”
Ten percent of the New River Gorge will become a national park, and hunters like Seay will lose access to this section of the land, as hunting is not permitted in national parks. The remaining 90 percent will become a national preserve and remain open to hunting as before.
The national park section is in the north near the iconic New River Gorge Bridge and some of the most difficult terrain around. Seay said he spends around 15 days a year hunting this section for personal reasons, not commercial expeditions.
“The reason people do not fish and hunt as much is because it is rugged,” said Seay. “It is tough hunting. It is tough country. And that’s why those animals are there. That’s why those deer are there, because they’re not easy to get to.”
Another local hunter, Logan Bockrath, said hunters are the “sacrificial user group” under the new park boundaries.
“If we asked kayakers and rafters to lose 10 percent of the rapids, or climbers [to lose] 10 percent of their rock-climbing routes, or mountain bikers to lose 10 percent of the trails, name the user group, it would be an uproar,” said Bockrath. “Hunters are the only ones getting cut out of the equation.”
Seay said he understands the decision but it feels like he’s lost his first love.
“I learned to hunt in the gorge — with my father — that’s where I learned trees, learned direction,” he said.
While hunters are losing access, the new park status is expected to improve the local economy.
In 2019, visitors to the New River Gorge spent $60 million dollars in the surrounding community, and the number of visitors to the park is expected to increase under the National Park brand.
Rafting companies are some of the biggest supporters of the park’s new status as the number of river users has declined since the 90s, according to commercial whitewater reports from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.
“We expect to see an increase, we expect it will be gradual,” said Haynes Mansfield, marketing director at ACE Adventure Resort, a large rafting outfitter in the gorge. “Honestly, the big shift we have seen recently is a cultural shift driven by COVID-19.”
After COVID-19 lockdowns closed the rafting industry in the spring, ACE Adventure Resort saw a huge rebound over the summer.
“We were shut down, we had no booking,” said Mansfield. “And then we had record sales, record website visits, phone calls, phones ringing off the hook.”
This surge in visitors was also seen at hikes and popular sites for rock-climbing, according to Eve West, a spokesperson with the National Park Service.
Excitement But Concerns
Maura Kistler, the co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors, an outdoor gear and climbing shop in Fayetteville, also noticed the crowds and said the increase highlighted existing problems with an underfunded park infrastructure.
“I am excited and I am concerned. These are not mutually exclusive,” Kistler said.
The park needs more trails and more parking lots so visitors can experience the beauty she gets to see every day, said Kistler.
“We don’t want more people if we’re not treating the resource properly and we’re not providing a good experience,” she said. “We don’t want to send people home frustrated and annoyed.”
The recent legislation authorizes the park to buy up to 100 acres of land for parking lots, but provides no additional funding for the park. Individual park funding is determined by the National Park Service.
“One of the hopes that accompany the great news about this designation is the opportunity for more stable—and perhaps even increased—resources,” said Capito in a statement to West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
She also said that while annual budgets can be challenging, the new designation puts the New River Gorge in a better position to receive additional funding.
In the years to come, the balancing act of who gets to access, who gets to use, and who’s going to pay for this land will continue in the New River Gorge.
Hunters, rafters, rock climbers, hikers, and tourists alike will continue to come to the gorge for a wide variety of world-class outdoor activities.
“That’s why we’re a national park,” said Mansfield. “But look at all of those communities that have to be served fairly and it’s not an easy task.”