COLUMN: We don’t need to sacrifice hunting around the New River Gorge, we need to do a better job of marketing our outdoor assets

When it comes to West Virginia’s outdoor pursuits, we should never have to consider curtailing one so the other can benefit. But that’s exactly what’s happening concerning the U.S. Congress’ attempt to designate the New River Gorge as a National Park and Preserve. 

Should the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act (S. 2555) pass – a bill introduced by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) with bicameral support – it would strip hunters of access to thousands of acres of public land so the whitewater rafting businesses might see increased interest. Before I get into this, I would like to say I don’t think this is a malicious assault on hunting but rather a move that could easily be solved so both whitewater rafting and hunting flourish on and around the NRG.

First, I want to get my biases out. I am a proud member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which is how I heard about this attempt to re-designate the NRG; I am a waterfowl hunter, and I know that isn’t super popular here; I love kayaking and love what whitewater pursuits bring to our state; I am a huge proponent of the National Park system and what it does for our country’s model of conservation; finally, I am heavily invested in using our outdoor recreation as a means to push our state’s economy away from being indebted to extractives and make our tourism the top driver of our income. 

So, let me start by saying that the new designation would be a horrible idea. While whitewater rafting guiding businesses have been struggling, their push to lobby legislators to designate the river as a National Park and Preserve doesn’t hold any weight. The NRG was established as a National River under the National Park Service in 1978. This designation protected 53 miles from Hinton to Hawks Nest State Park and provided access to 72,808 acres of public land. I doubt a new designation would truly boost interest. Because hunting is not allowed on National Parks but is normally allowed on National Preserves, currently hunters would lose 4,385 acres of access. For many of us, though, losing any amount of public land is abhorrent.

Rather, we as a state need to enhance the marketing of our outdoor recreation assets so Congress doesn’t need to intervene. In doing so, we would save the hunting lands and increase interest in the NRG’s whitewater activities. And being that it’s a waterfowl hunting gem, we need to increase our communication about this as well. With the brand new chapter of BHA, I believe that writers like myself and Larry Case now can speak up when things are going sour (like this) and highlight our wonderful assets like, yes, hunting waterfowl on the NRG or doing a multi-day backpacking hunt on surrounding public lands. If we increased interest in that – to out of staters specifically – our Division of Natural Resources could begin selling waterfowl stamps and have a new stream of revenue. And while hunters are there, it heightens the chance they’ll book a rafting trip or buy a deer license. Imagine how much money that would bring to the local economies, too. Why do you think people love going out west? Because they know how to market their outdoor assets as an adventure you don’t get back home! 

I think a lot of our issues surrounding our outdoor assets could be solved with new, younger minds in the communication field experimenting and using innovative methods of storytelling to drive interest and sales. How great would it be for young people to stay in-state after attending Marshall or West Virginia University, or any of the other small schools, with excellent communications and journalism programs to drive this new economy so many of us are trying to accelerate? Imagine the other businesses that would come here if they saw how beautiful our state truly is, as opposed to the negative news stories they see through major TV and print outlets, and, yes, even The Dominion Post and The Charleston Gazette-Mail. 

Imagine, just for a moment, meeting someone that says, “Yeah, I left Nevada because of how great West Virginia is,” like all of my college friends say about Colorado, Utah, Montana or Washington. We could be the next great outdoor state – I’d wager we already are – but for that to happen we need to focus on all aspects of our culture: Hunting, angling and adventure. I don’t think we can have one without the others and be successful, and I think that this designation could be a slippery slope for other things down the line. 

If you care about these things as much as I do, I highly suggest becoming a member of BHA. Attend some virtual events (until COVID-19 slows down) like the upcoming Pint Night. Talk to one another. Keep track of what’s going on and don’t be afraid to tell your legislators if you think something is wrong. Read Larry’s stuff that’s published in The Register-Herald. Read my stuff that’s published here and online. Email me and let’s have a discussion. There’s so much we can do as West Virginians to make things the best they can be for our state. Everyone can contribute in some way, whether you’re 12 or 80 years old, an engineer or a journalist, a man or a woman. This is our state, these are our pursuits. 

A shred of good news: According to our BHA chapter, some of our legislators are working on a revised bill to help alleviate some of the concerns hunters have. But, as both someone who loves water sports and hunting, we need to watch this closely. Instead of sacrificing our hunting opportunities, we need to tell our legislators to invest in boosting our outdoor recreation economy, invest in better infrastructure, create new opportunities for young communicators to come to West Virginia and more. This is the way forward, not giving one up for another.

TWEET @andrewspellman_