By Andy Davis and Chance Raso
West Virginia has wisely chosen to invest in its public parks and outdoor recreation assets with overwhelmingly positive results – record-breaking numbers of visitors, booked cabins and lodge rooms, and increased revenue flowing to adjacent communities. However, state legislation now working its way through the Legislature would allow the mixing of private investments and activities on these cherished public lands for which the state is blessed.
The Mountain State has seen a surge in outdoor recreation-based tourism over the last two years, in no small part due to the millions of Americans seeking the outdoors for leisure throughout the pandemic. The redesignation of the New River Gorge from a National River to National Park and Preserve in late 2020 has further boosted West Virginia as a destination among travel and leisure audiences. Our state parks have also witnessed this growth in outdoor recreation and have recently broken previous visitation records.
According to a December 2021 press release from the Office of the Governor, visitation throughout the state park system surpassed 9 million in 2021, far exceeding the yearly average of 7 million. This increase in visitation led to a 52 percent increase in revenue for the 2021 calendar year compared to 2017, according to Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby, who shared this fact at an event celebrating the $5.2 million in renovations on the lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park.
Gov. Jim Justice and his Administration have rightfully made tourism promotion a major part of the State’s agenda and since 2017 has funded $151 million in improvements and upgrades to the state park system’s facilities and infrastructure. The Division of Natural Resources is now generating nearly 60 percent of the revenue needed to manage the $50 million state park system. With more visitation and thus more revenue expected to be generated from people staying in lodges and campgrounds, the state parks will have even more funds to help pay a larger percentage of their annual operations expenditure total.
Last week, members of the West Virginia House of Delegates passed HB 4408 which, if also passed by the Senate, would allow the Department of Natural Resources to enter contracts with private investors to develop new lodging facilities or to manage existing state facilities for a duration of up to 30 years, with an option to renew contracts for an additional 20 years. In 2018, an attempt was made by state legislators to open state parks to the logging industry after an 80-year ban, but widespread opposition from citizens concerned that the proposal went against the state parks’ purpose of preserving natural areas of exceptional or unique significance led to the bill’s defeat. The current HB 4408 has received pushback as well, with critics stating the bill’s language is vague enough to possibly allow developments such as casinos, racetracks, and amusement parks that go against the purpose of the state park system. Another concern others have addressed is that privatization of park facilities and lodging would lead to price increases that many West Virginians wouldn’t be able to afford.
With increased revenue funneling into the state park system alongside recent increases in tourism we must ask, why risk losing a good thing? It does not seem advantageous for the State to allow its main revenue generating assets within the State Park system to become privatized. The possibility of seeing less money invested back into the parks for workforce, maintenance, and infrastructure projects seems too risky, especially considering the significance of public funds invested in state parks projects in recent years. Without careful oversight and regulation, private development within public lands could not only reduce the total funds available to those public land agencies, but it could also seriously undercut opportunities for private development in neighboring gateway communities.
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Andy Davis is Manager of Gateway Community Initiatives at the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, and Chance Raso is a Special Projects Coordinator there.