NPS study includes Pocahontas County
At the request of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, the National Park Service is evaluating a proposed 700,000-acre national park and preserve that would encompass much of the Allegheny Highlands. The study covers part of northern Pocahontas County, including the headwaters of the Greenbrier River.
Most of the land being studied under the NPS Reconnaissance Survey is part of the Monongahela and George Washington national forests, with another 8,700 acres falling under the West Virginia state park system. The borders of the proposal, published by the Friends of High Allegheny National Park, stretch north to south from Cathedral State Park, near Aurora, to Green Bank, bounded by Franklin to the east and Elkins to the west.
In a letter from Manchin's office dated July 26, 2011, the Senator noted that the area is "composed of exciting attractions like Spruce Knob, our state's highest peak, and the Smoke Hole Canyons, which run up to a half-mile deep into the ground."
"I believe that after performing a Reconnaissance Survey, the NPS will recognize that this area is not only a West Virginia, but also an American landmark," Manchin added.
Several sporting groups, including the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance are wary of the proposal.
"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," wrote Sportsmen's Alliance Federal Affairs Director Bill Horn in a December blog entry.
"Hunters and anglers need to watch this park study, and NPS, like a hawk," Horn continued. "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."
In December, Manchin press secretary Marni Goldberg told the Charleston Gazette, "Senator Manchin is a lifelong hunting enthusiast and is committed to making sure that the Alleghany Highlands remain open to hunting if the area receives a new designation from the National Park Service"
Friends of High Allegheny National Park and Preserve spokesperson Judy Rodd said preserving hunters' rights is a core component of the proposal.
"Hunting has always been a major part of this Park and Preserve proposal," said Rodd. "These parks are created through acts of Congress. So, you can write things into the bill that are more or less flexible on that issue. The guaranteed way is to have the Park and Preserve language."
Rodd points to the National Preserves in Alaska-Denali, Katmai, Wrangell-St. Elias, Lake Clark, Yukon-Charley, Glacier Bay-where National Park Service management permits hunting.
"We don't want to interfere with the private ownership or the traditional uses," Rodd added. "So the idea is to meld what's there now, but add more incentive for private industry to grow up around this area."
While most of the land in consideration is already federally owned and managed, Rodd said there would be several advantages in transferring that management from the U.S. Forest Service to the NPS.
"The Park Service is really good at interpreting historic sites and bringing visitors who are interested in history," said Rodd.
And the Allegheny Highlands have a wealth of historic sites, stretching back to the frontier forts of the mid 1700s, to several significant Civil War sites, as well as locations that encompass the state's early coal and timber industries from the turn of the last century and the legacy of Great Depression-era agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.
Of particular interest in northern Pocahontas County is the Camp Allegheny Civil War site, said Rodd.
The NPS would do more to attract visitors to these areas, said Rodd.
"I think the main advantage of the National Park Service is they're really visitor oriented-they're really people oriented-as opposed to the Forest Service which is very timber oriented," she said.
With the increase in visitors, Rodd said a National Park would be "an economic engine" for the Allegheny Highlands.
"The [Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee] brings in $800 million to the surrounding communities each year and has created 15,000 jobs," Rodd noted. "It's very recession-proof. People still go to the parks in a bad economy."
At the same time, Rodd said, Allegheny Highlands National Park and Preserve would look very different than other NPS units.
"This is not your grandfather's park," she said. "This doesn't have to be like Yellowstone. The land in West Virginia that became federal did not happen all at once. It was over time. It was not a solid block of land, so it's a checkerboard with lots of private ownership mixed in with public."
The Reconnaissance Study, expected to be completed by September, is "the first, most informal and highest in the clouds quick overview of the resources and making 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, told NationalParksTraveler.com in December.
"The area that the senator has asked us to look at is fairly large and rich in resources," Cooper told National Parks Traveler.
"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."
"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," Cooper continued.
The agency could 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," Cooper explained. "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 Park Service conducts its initial Reconnaissance Study, Rodd said she will be spending much of 2012 doing her own legwork, meeting with stakeholders in the communities encompassed by the proposal.
She already has meetings scheduled with the Pendleton County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Tucker County Planning Commission.
"I would love to come to Pocahontas County and speak to a group," Rodd said.
The Friends of High Allegheny National Park and Preserve are working on a video to share with hunters and other outdoor recreation groups, as well, she said.
"It's a lot of work," Rodd continued. "It's slow slogging, but our intention is to use this year as an educational campaign to reach out to all the stakeholders, get everybody at the table, and get their opinions and flesh this out a little more."
Drew Tanner can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.