FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — With lockdowns closing businesses and athletic seasons getting canceled, Americans took to the outdoors in 2020 — they walked, they ran and they picked up sports like golf and tennis. Many also visited public lands.
A report from the Outdoor Foundation found more than 8 million more Americans went hiking in 2020 compared with 2019, a trend that’s continued into 2021 with attendance at national parks reaching record numbers.
The New River Gorge in West Virginia was named the country’s 63rd National Park as part of the December COVID-19 relief bill, and although always well-known regionally, it’s quickly become popular nationally.
“We have seen an uptick this year since the designation,” Park Superintendent Lizzie Watts told ABC News. “We hope that uptick is tied to two things: that COVID gave a lot of people the opportunity to learn how safe being outdoors are, and [also] encouraged families to take hikes and go outside where we can actually do things.”
About 53 miles of the New River — one of the oldest in the world — flows through the park, surrounded by over 70,000 acres worth of scaling rock and lush green trees. The park is a haven for mountain bikers, hikers, rock climbers and whitewater rafters. Visitors also can strap on a harness and walk across a beam along the New River Gorge Bridge — one of West Virginia’s most-recognized landmarks.
With a stream of visitors coming in, Watts recommends people plan ahead and try to go on a weekday.
“Know what the popular trails are, and then also have an alternative,” Watts added.
Many local business owners said they were excited about the area’s designation as a park.
“This is a huge light that can be shone on how awesome it is to live here,” said Adam Stevens, owner of the Arrowhead Bike Farm and Campground in Fayetteville.
Stevens told ABC News his business saw a spike during pandemic and that he anticipates another with the park gaining national attention.
“Not only are we this amazing, iconic geological preservation,” he said, “we’re also wildly popular activity point for outdoor people. So, that was what we had before all this happened.”
Maura Kistler, co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville, said that “foot traffic has been off the hook.”
“We sit and look across the shop at each other all the time, and I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And that is a great problem to have,” she said, adding that there is some concern over the park’s infrastructure. “We just need a few more parking lots and need to get better about distributing visitors across our park. We need to use all the different trails and all the different overlooks. It’s been really easy to just send people to the standard spots and that’s doing visitors a disservice. We just need to get smarter about that, and that’s what we’re working on now.”
But others have other concerns.
Larry Case, a writer for the blog Guns & Cornbread, has spent decades as a conservation officer and hunter in the New River Gorge.
“A lot of us hunters,” he said, “we feel the land was taken from us. That’s my stance on it, and I believe of a lot of other local people.”
Hunting, another outdoor activity that saw a boost during the pandemic, is steeped in tradition in West Virginia. But it’s still allowed in most of New River Gorge — in the 90% classified as a preserve — just not in the part designated a national park.
But for hunters like Case, losing any amount of land can have an impact.
“Hunters need to be concerned about public land access,” he added. “We didn’t need to change the area to a national park for the protection of the area. … We’re not against tourism, not against national parks. I just personally don’t see why they had to take this area away from hunters.”
Kistler told ABC News she understood where hunters were coming from.
“I know Larry Case. He’s a good man. The hunters have been expressing their concerns and dissatisfaction,” Kistler said. “These are hunting grounds that have been used for generations, and that is never an easy thing to accept.”
Watts also acknowledged the role hunters play in conservation efforts and in curbing a growing deer population.
“A lot of hunters are some of the best conservationists in the world,” Watts added. “I truly think the best decisions are compromises … the compromise that the senators came up with was a park and preserve, where we get to do both.”
Listen to the report on the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve here.
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