we’ve chosen to honor the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve as our 2021 West Virginian of the Year.
As we asked ourselves who has had the greatest impact on West Virginians in the year gone by, we kept coming back to one idea: Why not, instead of a “who,” a “what”? We believe the new national park designation is proving to be a game changer for the state, and we’ve chosen to honor the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve as our 2021 West Virginian of the Year.
In the spring of 1988, West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall stopped by the First National Bank of Keystone on a routine tour of his district. Keystone is strung narrow along the Norfolk Southern tracks in McDowell County coal country. The bank wasn’t in one of those imposing 1800s stone railroad-town financial edifices. It operated out of a dusty contemporary building just a sidewalk’s distance from the two-lane through town.
This visit with bank President Knox McConnell was routine, but Rahall also had an agenda.
McConnell invited the congressman into his office. He offered him coffee, Rahall figures. They would have talked about mine layoffs and other challenges Keystone faced. Then the visitor leaned forward to raise his topic.
“Knox, you may have seen in the press where we’re working very hard to create this system of federally protected rivers and expand our whitewater rafting industry.” Rahall had written a bill to build on the New River Gorge National River that was established a decade earlier, in 1978. Its aim was to protect two major tributaries: It would create the Gauley River National Recreation Area north of the gorge and the Bluestone National Scenic River to its south.
The conversation may have veered over to the proposed Hatfield–McCoy trail system. The trails would help McDowell County directly, and Rahall was working on that, too. But supporters of this rivers bill had spent a year and more uniting hunters, fishers, and paddlers with labor and business owners as well as mayors, county commissioners, and state lawmakers, and they needed just one more assurance. So he steered back to his agenda.
“Building whitewater helps us all,” he told McConnell. “Even though it’s not right here in this county, it still brings people into southern West Virginia. My No. 1 goal right now is this legislation that President Reagan has threatened pretty heavily and publicly to veto.”
“You want me to call the president and see if I can get him on board?” McConnell was a Reagan backer with access.
“Yes, that’s my ask.”
Some weeks later, McConnell called to say it was a go. And in October 1988, Reagan signed the bill into law.
Rahall’s legislation added more than 40 miles of extraordinary rivers to the 50 miles of the New River already under federal protection—and it created one of the single largest systems of federally protected rivers east of the Mississippi.
Our New River rises in the mountains of western North Carolina. It flows northeast to Radford, Virginia, where it makes a hard left turn to cut straight through the Ridge and Valley Appalachian Mountains into West Virginia.
19th century Virginia pioneers hoped the New would offer a natural water corridor to the Kanawha and Ohio rivers and western lands, but their explorations were disappointed. The New enters a narrow gorge, they found. Over the next 50 miles, it crashes around boulders and cascades between steep cliffs, making it impractical for transportation and trade—although the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway later liked the river’s banks for hauling coal and timber from the surrounding landscape.
That impassable but stunning gorge won 20th century West Virginians’ hearts. They lobbied the federal government to protect it. They built it a one-of-a-kind bridge. They worked together to protect the river’s tributaries, an effort sealed by Rahall’s legislation. And year by year, they created an outdoor recreation wonderland, welcoming people from everywhere to enjoy their bounty.
West Virginians’ delight in the New River was rewarded in December 2020 with the creation of the state’s first national park. It was, technically, one small item in a massive year-end spending bill. But in human terms, it was the culmination of more than 60 years of step-wise visioning and politicking—the honest work of community and democracy.
It took the collaboration of three generations to birth the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, our 2021 West Virginian of the Year.
An idea gathers: the 1960s
We can say now in hindsight that, on November 17, 1959, in the criminal courtroom of the Raleigh County Courthouse in Beckley, Fayetteville banker Duvall Schultz predicted the future. He spoke up at a hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Unemployment Problems chaired by our U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph.
We could increase tourism and employment in this region, Schultz told the assembled, with a national park at the New River Gorge. What would really make it work, he said, would be an eye-catching bridge over the gorge and the re-routing of U.S. 19 across it.
If those words didn’t predict the future, they shaped it.
There were not much more than a couple dozen national parks at the time. But Randolph, who’d been in the U.S. House when Harpers Ferry National Monument was created in 1944, had seen the magnetism of a National Park Service (NPS) designation. At Harpers Ferry, he said, “The first year we had approximately 115,000 visitors … and this year we will have well over half a million persons who sign the guest book.”
The simple majesty of the idea swept people up. Senator Robert C. Byrd touted a New River Gorge National Park in a 1961 newspaper column. State lawmakers took it up in 1963 with a joint resolution encouraging “speedy development of the New River Gorge Area into a national playground.” That resolution was sent to President John F. Kennedy himself.
But a contentious decade-plus followed. Appalachian Power proposed a Blue Ridge Pumped Storage project that would build multiple dams on the New upriver in Virginia, and river advocates got pulled into fighting that instead.
Meanwhile, whitewater pioneer Jon Dragan launched a campaign for hearts and minds. He and his brothers started Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited, the state’s first commercial whitewater rafting business, in 1968, and he was passionate. “I recall vividly Jon Dragan, when I was a young man in Beckley, going around to the various civic clubs talking about his vision for rafting on the New River and the protection of the New River Gorge,” Rahall says.
Part of the New River’s charm is that it unfurls in a way that invites everybody. The upper New punctuates peaceful pools with class I to III rapids—on a scale that goes to VI—making Sandstone to Cunard great for beginners and families. In the lower gorge, the river froths up to class IV-plus.
Dragan used that. He knew that the exhilaration of a whitewater rafting trip is powerfully persuasive. “He kept taking people down the river that were very important,” says Dave Arnold, who was so smitten by a trip he took at age 17, in 1971, that he made rafting and New River Gorge–area tourism his career. Dragan’s guests ranged in influence all the way up to cabinet secretaries and Lady Bird Johnson, wife of 1960s president Lyndon B. Johnson, Arnold recalls. “He got them to fall in love with the river.”
Park barrel politics: The 1970s
At U.S. Highway 19, the New River Gorge is nearly 900 feet deep and more than half a mile wide.
To cross the gorge when Rahall was young, motorists took narrow, switchbacky County Route 82 down one side, across the 1889 Fayette Station Bridge, and up the other side, with coal and log trucks careening around the hairpin turns. It took a sometimes-harrowing half hour, longer in weather. “It was quite scenic,” he remembers. “All your view was looking up.”
But in 1974, construction began on the bridge that the visionary Schultz had evoked at the 1959 hearing. It was part of the new Corridor L between Interstate 79 near Sutton and I-77 at Beckley, and it was not just any bridge: It was, indeed, an eye-catching bridge, a daring and spectacular bridge. Then-Governor Arch Moore, who had a more than passing interest in architecture, later told the Beckley Register-Herald that he himself had influenced the design. He didn’t want a typical span with trusses above the driving surface. “I wanted a bridge turned upside-down,” he said. “I wanted it where you have no top on it at all. As a matter of fact, it would be open and free as you come across it.”
As that bedazzling bridge took shape, Senators Byrd and Randolph called the question on the national park. They asked the Department of the Interior to figure out, finally, whether any national designation would suit the New River Gorge. Bad news: It wasn’t worthy to be a national park, the department concluded. Between logging, mining, and the railroad, the region had withstood and continued to withstand too many man-made impacts.
Wild and scenic river designation was recommended instead, a status that would highlight the river and its undisturbed state.
That did not sit well at home. Some locals liked wild and scenic’s allowance for hunting. But some didn’t want to take “no” for an answer. Their gorge deserved the prestige of a national park. Plus, wild and scenic wouldn’t protect it rim to rim. And the business community especially didn’t want a wilderness—they wanted recreation and tourism.
The mood eased some with the fanfare accompanying the October 1977 opening of the New River Gorge Bridge. Former governors Okey Patteson, Hulett Smith, and of course Arch Moore were on hand—as was Moore’s family, including daughter Shelley Moore Capito—along with then-Governor Jay Rockefeller. The new span cut the time to cross the gorge from 30 minutes to 30 seconds, and a crowd of 40,000 celebrated its beauty and convenience.
After that, things fell into place. Locals finally agreed on a third option: a national river—less prestige than a national park, but more flexibility for local conditions. Senator Byrd now wielded influence as majority leader. A newly elected Congressman Rahall had navigated himself onto the right committees so, even as a freshman, he was ideally placed. And it happened to be a conservation-savvy administration and Congress. It was finally the right idea at the right time. “I don’t think anybody was opposed,” Rahall says.
Byrd and Rahall got the New River Gorge into an omnibus parks bill so massive it was dubbed the park barrel bill and, come November 1978, we finally had ourselves a New River Gorge National River—70,000 acres along 50 miles of the New River between Hinton and Fayetteville.
Becoming national park–like: the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s
Every fall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from dams to make room for winter and spring snowmelt. In the mid-’80s, it became clear that the releases from the Summersville Dam were creating monumental whitewater—five class V rapids that would earn the upper Gauley international recognition as The Beast of the East. The Corps started timing its releases for recreationists and, by 1987, thrillseekers were taking tens of thousands of trips down the river during Gauley Season.
Whitewater was becoming an industry. Bitten by the bug in 1971, Arnold co-founded Class VI River Runners in 1977. Outfitters were springing up on rivers across the state—companies geared toward families, companies that hit the rapids aggressively, companies catering to upscale adventurers. Paid rafting trips were numbering in the many tens of thousands a year.
Rahall’s 1988 rivers bill capitalized on all of that, showcasing the spectacular New, the thrilling Gauley, and the beautiful Bluestone as one vast river recreation region encompassing everything from flatwater to wildwater, all set in remote and dramatic mountain landscapes. And whitewater kept growing, topping 250,000 trips statewide in the mid-’90s.
The region was pinched by the decline of coal, and here was the tourism the business community had angled for. Fayetteville, especially, embraced its role as host. And when whitewater topped out, then dipped, around 2000, outfitters merged and professionalized. Several consolidated in 2008 as River Expeditions. Several became ACE Adventure Resort. Arnold’s career as an outfitter culminated in joining with three other outfitters as the world-class Adventures on the Gorge resort, with multiple types of dining and lodging and a long list of outdoor experiences.
And through all of this, the NPS matured its national river operation. It maintained roads and trails to its standards, preserved buildings in former coal towns like Thurmond and Nuttallsburg, and created interpretive materials. It opened its headquarters in Glen Jean in 1989 and the Canyon Rim Visitor Center in 1991. It acquired inholdings, controlling less than 1% of acreage within the boundaries in 1978 and over 60% by 2000. The Sandstone Visitor Center opened in 2003.
“People go to Yellowstone and they think, ‘Wow, this is wonderful,’” Arnold says. “Well, it had over 100 years to get like that. It takes time. In 40 years, the New River Gorge became national park–like.”
The 1978 national river designation was a great recognition, hard-won, and that could have been the end of it—people could have let the NPS do its thing and gone on about their business. But the fact is, advocates didn’t see “national river” as an endpoint. “The dream was always there,” Rahall says. “We never gave up on national park status.” The pride the region took in sharing its natural riches with visitors and showing them an increasingly good time over the years demonstrated the gorge’s, and the community’s, worthiness.
Pushing the stars into alignment: 2018–2020
So when Arnold retired from AOTG in 2018, CEO Roger Wilson offered him an aspirational consulting project. “Roger says to me, I want you to work full-time on making this a national park,” Arnold recalls. “It was exciting to me because we had been talking about it for years, outfitters had, and this allowed me to really put my time into it.”
He started rallying that same broad support that had gotten the New, Gauley, and Bluestone rivers protected in 1978 and 1988—but with a new generation and with, now, a national park–like operation in place. And with two senators, Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin, who’d gone down the New River multiple times over their lives.
Capito, whose father, as governor, had championed the bridge, started hearing from Arnold and others about resurrecting the national park push. “I thought, this is such a good idea,” she recalls. “But before I went any further, I wanted to make sure that the local governance, the commissions, the mayor of Fayetteville, that this was really what everybody wanted. Because it was going to bring a whole lot more people and traffic and, while that’s good, sometimes there’s opposition.”
Arnold contacted the commissions of the four New River Gorge–area counties—Fayette, Nicholas, Raleigh, and Summers—and got unanimous letters of recommendation from all of them. “Once we had those, our delegation felt better about doing it.”
Capito drafted the New River Gorge National Park Designation Act. It would have allowed hunting, a condition for local acceptance but a nonstarter for a national park. But that bill was just a first step on the way to a national park at the core of a national preserve that would allow hunting. “We didn’t yet have the maps to fully delineate between the park and the preserve,” she says. “The bill pushed for the creation of the maps, which you need in order to have accurate legislation.”
Maps complete, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act was drafted by the fall of 2019. Senator Manchin, well-placed as ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, joined Capito on that, and Congresswoman Miller brought it forward in the House. Then the senators hosted a huge field hearing at Tamarack in February 2020 and narrowed the acreage of the national park in response to hunters’ concerns.
Concerns also came from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a venerable, century-old membership organization dedicated to national park system advocacy. Park visitation across the country is increasing, NPCA Mid-Atlantic Senior Director Joy Oakes testified in March 2020, while funding is declining sharply. The New River Gorge National River had a $21 million repair backlog, she said, and staffing was down 25% from its 2010 level. The NPCA sought assurance of greater funding.
As it happened, legislation for public lands funding was already in the works.
So the pieces were coming together. Interestingly, the 1978 arguments against national park status had fallen away. Mining had essentially ended, and the scarred land had healed some. Also, much more had been learned about the gorge, says the NPS’s Lizzie Watts, who has worked at the New River for over 20 of the past 34 years, most recently as superintendent. “We just didn’t know back then how special the ecosystem is,” she says. “Also, the terminology ‘national river’ highlights the river, but we’ve learned so much about the rich cultural history, from Native Americans on.”
It came down to the end of 2020, Capito says. “I worked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, and on the House side, too, to get it into the end-of-the-year spending bill.” That bill passed on December 21.
And that’s how, over six decades, West Virginians pulled together to create the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
This is for the future
“Let’s just reflect on what an amazing place the New River Gorge is,” says the NPCA’s Oakes. “It’s at the core of this globally significant interior forest that is really valuable habitat for a lot of species. It has the second-highest biodiversity in the National Park Service, second only to Great Smoky Mountains National Park—which is seven times bigger.” She notes the unique mining and railroad history and its role in the industrialization of America, which is interpreted for visitors throughout the park. “And then the recreational opportunities, including rock climbing and bicycling, exciting whitewater boating, flatwater paddling, hunting and fishing, hiking, and wildlife watching. It certainly deserves recognition.”
The new national park, the nation’s 63rd, encompasses 7,000 acres in four sections, primarily the lower gorge. And the new national preserve, 20th in the U.S., accounts for more than 65,000 acres on which hunting is permitted. Taken together, the protected New, Gauley, and Bluestone rivers have come to be known informally as the National Parks of Southern West Virginia.
Arnold likes to say that this could have taken a different path. He recalls President Kennedy’s appreciation for West Virginia’s support in the 1960 election. After the state Legislature sent the president its resolution in 1963, he says, Kennedy could at some point simply have declared the New River Gorge a national monument—which is how Acadia, Grand Canyon, and some other national parks got started—but for one fateful event. “If he was not assassinated in November of that year, this game may have been played out 60 years earlier.”
That may be so. But a long path to national park–hood is typical, Oakes says. “This is not an unusual story in the encyclopedia of land protection efforts. A lot of times it does take multiple steps.”
Capito and Manchin attended a dedication in May 2021, the start of the national park’s first season. Manchin was honored. “It will spur economic growth and bring good-paying jobs and new opportunities to the region and the entire state.” For Capito, it was overwhelmingly joyful. “I was mostly just really happy for the grassroots effort that it took. This was not going to be an idea that Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin dreamed up—this had to come from all different areas of that part of the state. Seeing that victory was really exciting.”
Park visitation, as one would expect, was up in 2021—35% over pre-pandemic 2019, January through September: people exploring the outdoors more because of COVID-19, people who visit every national park, international travelers. The usual reaction is, they’re impressed, Watts says. “I think a lot of people don’t know how pretty West Virginia is. Once they’ve come and played here, they realize how unique and how gorgeous it is.”
It will take resources to protect that. In the months following the NPCA’s expression of concern about park funding, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act to support facilities on public lands, with Capito and Manchin as co-sponsors. Still, Capito says, “We do have to be vigilant. And certainly if I see problems at the national park over time, as an appropriator, I have the ability to help with that.”
Watts, as superintendent, was filled with pride to see the New River Gorge elevated in this way. “I’m really proud of the people who worked hard on this,” she says. “It’s really not for us—this is for future generations. It’s for the kids of southern West Virginia to be very proud of where they came from. It’s for our great-grandkids. I think that’s special.”