By Chris Lawrence in Outdoor Journal
Hunting and fishing are allowed under current law, and that current law is specifically preserved by Senator Capito’s bill. The current statute, adopted in 2009, states that the Secretary of the Interior shall allow hunting and fishing in the New River Gorge national river. Senator Capito’s bill includes specific language that says that the Secretary’s current obligation to allow hunting and fishing would remain in place for the newly designated New River Gorge national park.
A push for a change in the designation of the New River Gorge from a National River Area to a full-fledged National Park seems to have little to no opposition as it moves in the United States Senate.
U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito is the champion of the idea as a way to draw more attention from out of state tourists considering a vacation in the Mountain State. Advocates of the new designation argue it will draw more visitors to southern West Virginia to enjoy the river–particularly whitewater rafting. Perhaps they are correct, but it’s a gamble. Calling it a “park” may or may not be an added attraction.
But one thing it will almost certainly do is significantly impact hunting and fishing within the boundaries of what is currently the New River Gorge National River and the Bluestone National Scenic River areas. For the time being, hunting is allowed in those areas. The Division of Natural Resources is also able to manage the fisheries. Several streams in the park boundary are stocked with trout and the agency of late has worked to restore the population of the native New River strain of walleye. Whether those activities would be allowed to continue in a National Park is unclear.
When the area was declared a National River Area it was an effort led by the late U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. At the time, the area did not qualify as a National Park, so the designation of a National River was created. The enabling legislation stated hunting would remain one of the primary purposes of the land. However, every few years the master plan for the area must be revised. Hunting advocates have to be vigilant. Although the enabling legislation which led to the original designation included hunting as part of the park’s mission, the designation has been written out of the plan before. The move created a firestorm of controversy in the 1990s and the hunting language was restored. Trapping was banned in much the same way. Those monitoring the revisions assumed “trapping” fell under the heading of “hunting”, but under a federal definition, it did not.
There is plenty of evidence the National Park Service isn’t a fan of hunting. More than a decade ago, in a study of wild and scenic rivers, the Park Service was able to take control of 3,000 acres of the Bluestone Wildlife Management Area lying along the banks of the Bluestone River. The WMA is leased by the DNR from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Although a management agreement was struck between the Park Service and DNR, the relationship has always been contentious and management efforts on those 3,000 acres have been minimal due to the NPS objections. Sources within the DNR tell me the creation of wildlife openings and habitat diversification have all but ceased under Park Service oversight.
While it’s true, there are some NPS managed lands across the nation where hunting is allowed, none of them are National Parks. All areas where hunting is allowed are some other designation, such as a National Preserve, National Seashore, National Recreation Area, or in the case of West Virginia a National River Area or a National Scenic River.
When and if the New River Gorge becomes a National Park, it automatically falls under a whole new set of rules and guidelines. The Park Service typically carries a preservationist attitude rather than conservation. Therefore, hunting is almost universally opposed and the prospects for managing fishing opportunities could also be somewhat impacted negatively.
So far there have been no announced public hearings on the proposed change. It’s also unclear if anybody has even bothered to check what the ramifications for sportsmen may be, but past history would certainly indicate West Virginia’s hunters and fishermen will probably be on the losing end of such a change.