When it comes to iconic state parks, Appalachia isn’t lacking. Mount Mitchell has sweeping vistas from the highest mountain in the East. Wild ponies roam the Appalachian Trail at Grayson Highlands. So it hardly seems feasible that one of the region’s most intriguing parks might start with a tiny parcel of farmland in Russell County, Va.
That parcel sits in the community of Artrip along the Clinch River, a headwater tributary of the Tennessee River cutting through Virginia’s southwesternmost corner. If the Clinch doesn’t ring a bell, that’s for good reason: the stream lacks the epic whitewater found on other Appalachian rivers and hides in a narrow valley far from major population centers.
Anonymity, though, is all part of the allure. Brad Kreps, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program, emphasizes that the river supports the nation’s greatest number of rare and endangered aquatic species. “In addition,” Kreps says, “the Clinch has exceptional scenic beauty and is a thread that connects many different towns and communities.”
The river’s ability to make connections hasn’t been lost on the watershed’s people. In 2010, local residents, nonprofits, and others formed the Clinch River Valley Initiative to revitalize towns devastated by downturns in the agricultural and coal economies. The river is floatable along almost its entire length in Virginia, leading residents to wonder how the Clinch could be used to connect those communities through the outdoors. Discussions grew into $2.5 million being allocated for a new state park in the commonwealth’s budget.
By all accounts, this won’t be your typical state park. Rather than being a continuous, linear corridor, the Clinch River State Park will have a “string of pearls” configuration. Several separate, larger properties will be purchased along the river’s length, with smaller public access points positioned in between. The result will be a network of properties spanning the river’s 100-plus miles that will protect habitat for rare wildlife, facilitate multi-day float trips, and link visitors to nearby downtowns.
“It’s unique, but the time is right to try something new,” says Steve Lindeman, land protection program manager with The Nature Conservancy. Lindeman and partners have begun working with willing landowners to purchase smaller properties that fill gaps in public access along the river. Those properties, including the put-in at Artrip, will be transferred to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) as part of the state park system.
Virginia DCR Western Region Operations Manager David Collett stresses that the park won’t be fully completed anytime soon. Purchasing a complete set of properties takes time, and planning will need to occur thereafter. “Once the property is acquired, the master planning process will begin,” Collett says. “Pending future funding for staffing and facilities, the development of the park would then begin after acquisition and planning.”
However, communities are already reaping benefits from added public access along the river. Nine outfitters and other outdoor businesses have opened, with tourism-related tax revenues up by 14 percent. Riverside communities have designated themselves “Hometowns of the Clinch,” reflecting the common thread driving the park forward.
For one of those towns, Dungannon, Va., a new sense of community rings especially true. Mayor Debra Horne says that after a manufacturing plant shut down, the town “took a downward spiral and a lot of people were out of work.” Then came the Clinch River Valley Initiative and the new state park. Dungannon now has a revamped access point along the river and a $700,000 downtown revitalization grant. “More than anything, it brings more communities and families together,” Horne says of the park. “We all work as one.”