Apparently, death threats aren’t that big of a deal in West Virginia. When a state senator claimed certain environmentalists threatened to kill her and three other people over a piece of legislation that would fund a National Park feasibility study in the Highlands of West Virginia, nobody seemed too concerned.
“She said I was trying to have her killed,” says Judy Rodd, founder of Friends of Blackwater, a West Virginia environmental group that’s campaigning to establish a national park in a remote section of the Mountain State. “She said she narrowly missed being killed by environmentalists several times. I told her I was a Quaker and that I don’t believe in violence.”
The alleged death threat was covered in state media outlets but both the local sheriff’s department and the FBI denied any report had been filed by the senator. A year later, Rodd barely gives the incident a second thought. “The accusations were completely political. She was trying to discredit us as an organization.”
Death threats are just business as usual when it comes to the hypothetical Blackwater Canyon National Park and all that the proposal entails. After all, this is property rights versus preservation rights we’re talking about here. West Virginia versus the federal government. Environmentalists against timber companies. The endangered northern flying squirrel versus the almighty dollar. Roadless Rule rollbacks and gated community developments. This is a decades long clash between environmental idealism and big industry pragmatism with thousands of weary residents caught in the middle. And it’s all going down in Tucker County, one of the wildest, most remote regions of West Virginia. A county where moonshine is still readily available and the federal government is public enemy number one. What’s a felony accusation in light of all that?
“Welcome to Tucker County,” says Laird Knight, a long time Tucker resident and mountain biking mogul. “It’s the wild west.” And in the wild west, anything goes.
The first thing you do when you get to Tucker County is buy the Canaan Valley Adventure Map. Dish out $8 at Blackwater Bikes and you’ll get a glossy, fold out guide to the area’s best mountain biking, backpacking, and cross country skiing. More than 125,000 acres of public land reside in Tucker County, split between rugged mountains and high elevation valleys. The two geographical entities seem at odds with each other on paper, but they come together seamlessly in Canaan Valley, the heart of Tucker County and the epicenter of all things outdoors in West Virginia. You want the best singletrack east of Moab? You go to Canaan Valley. You want solid resort slopes and off-piste skiing? Canaan Valley is your only option below the Mason Dixon. Solitary backpacking through pristine Wilderness? Check out the valley. Cross country skiing? The valley gets 150 inches of snow a year. Dramatic canyons, raging rivers, tough summits; Canaan Valley has it all and Judy Rodd wants to turn it into the Blackwater Canyon National Park. Or the High Allegheny National Park. Take your pick on the name. Whatever you call it, Rodd is leading a grassroots effort to turn this sleepy county in the northern section of the Monongahela National Forest into America’s next full-blown park service unit, encompassing 100,000 acres from Blackwater Canyon south to Seneca Rocks. The proposal is big, it’s ambitious, it’s highly controversial, and it’s impossible to not get excited about–at least on a surface level.
The potential recreation the proposal would bring into one park is astounding. Imagine including the world class climbing of Seneca Rocks and the pristine cross country skiing of Dolly Sods underneath the same management umbrella. Imagine paddling class V Blackwater River and hiking Otter Creek Wilderness within the same park. And all of it, from the existing Wilderness areas to the national forest’s logging prescriptions would be permanently protected for future generations. In ten years, there would be no threat of a condo development at the bottom of Seneca Rocks. In 30 years, the backcountry campsites on Canaan Mountain wouldn’t be a Walmart. Blackwater Canyon National Park would permanently preserve some of West Virginia’s most beloved natural landscapes while encompassing the state’s most sought after recreation hot spots.
“There are few areas that would still meet [national park] standards,” said Paul Pritchard, president of the National Park Trust, a conservation group dedicated to America’s park system. “Blackwater Canyon is clearly one of them.”
The potential recreation possibilities and tourism dollars of a national park in the West Virginia Highlands has gained quite a bit of political support at the state and federal level over the last several years. Both Governor’s Wise and Underwood pledged their support to preserving the area in and around Blackwater Canyon during each of their terms. In 2000, Senator Byrd endorsed a feasibility study for a national park in West Virginia’s Highlands region and even managed to allocate $300,000 in funding for the project before the study was killed in committee. Legislation asking for a similar feasibility study has been introduced in the West Virginia legislature three times. In 2001, National Geographic Adventure Magazine ran a poll asking readers what location deserved to be the next national park. Blackwater Canyon won the poll with 67 percent of the 18,290 votes.
And this isn’t the first time an interest was expressed in establishing a national park in Canaan Valley. In 1974, the Park Service designated a chunk of the valley as a National Natural Landmark, stating, “in the East, there are very few areas of its grandeur and magnificence.” The National Natural Landmark Program was designed to ease private and public property into national park designation, and it seemed a national park in Canaan Valley was only a matter of time.
But today, the creation of a national park is no further along than it was 30 years ago when the site was first anointed for designation by the Department of the Interior. In spite of political interest on the state and federal level as well as interest within the park service itself, the feasibility study (the first step toward designation) has yet to materialize. It turns out politicians on both the state and federal level refuse to go forward with the project without the support of the local government and residents of Tucker. And the majority of Tucker County is dead set against a national park. The tight-knit mountain community simply doesn’t trust the federal government.
“West Virginia isn’t a state,” Laird Knight says from his office in downtown Davis, the unofficial hub of Tucker and Canaan Valley. “It’s a colony.”
Knight is referring to the state’s long history of being exploited by outside interests. Absentee landlords like timber companies, power companies, and coal companies own or control three fifths of all private property in West Virginia. Canaan Valley itself was clear cut in the late 1800s and early 1900s by out of state timber companies. After the valley and surrounding mountains were left barren and subsequently scorched, the timber companies sold their land to the forest service. Today, West Virginia loses 50,000 acres a year to mountain top removal, a practice that is undertaken by mostly out of state coal companies. Take a closer look at the Canaan Valley Adventure Map and you’ll see dozens of abandoned strip mines scattered throughout the valley. The North Fork of the Blackwater is completely dead thanks to those mines. Western Pocahontas, a timber company based in Texas, still owns a significant portion of the valley, and all 100,000 acres of the Monongahela National Forest within Tucker County are managed by politicians in Washington, as is the National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses 16,000 acres of county land. Corridor H, a highway currently in the planning stages that will cut drive time from D.C. to Canaan Valley in half effectively changing Tucker County forever, was created and approved by politicians in Washington.
“We get pushed around here by forces beyond our control,” says Bill Smith, executive director of the Tucker County Visitor’s Bureau. “Deals are made in Washington and Charleston and we have to live with the consequences.”
There’s little doubt that Tucker County’s history of living with the consequences is informing the locals’ opinions on the proposed national park. When the campaign for a national park feasibility study heated up in 2000, Sam Eichelberger, a Tucker resident and county commissioner, circulated a petition opposing any sale of land to the state or federal government. The petition was designed to keep “developable land” out of government control and was signed by 96 percent of Tucker residents and endorsed by the Davis City Council, Thomas City Council, and Parsons City Council. The petition was an unmistakable statement to the federal government; Tucker county does not want you.
Eichelberger refused to comment for this story, but Jerry DiBacco, a former Tucker County commissioner, is on record at a county meeting discussing the petition. At the meeting, DiBacco compared the plight of Tucker residents to that of the American Indian. “I, like others must say that we living here in Tucker County all our lives truly know how the American Indian must have felt when dealing with the U.S. government after seeing our land snatched from under us,” DiBacco said.
Almost half of Tucker County is owned by the federal or state government and much of that land was seized by eminent domain. Canaan Valley State Park, designated in 1965, was created by condemning 10,000 acres of family farms. More recently, the Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge, a 16,000-acre tract of land in the middle of the valley, was created under false pretenses according to most locals, and has been a source of contention within the community since its designation in the ‘90s. The deal has even caused a large portion of Canaan Valley’s growing outdoor community to turn against the federal government and question the validity of a national park in the area.
In order to establish the Wildlife Refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within the Department of the Interior, purchased 3,000 acres of land in the valley with the hard-earned blessing of the local community. It was a blessing that the community immediately regretted giving.
“The vast majority of recreationists were supportive of the refuge. There was a ten year process of public meetings,” Knight says. “So many locals attended hours and hours of meetings in order to make sure the refuge wouldn’t impact the local economy in a negative way. It was all for nothing because the Fish and Wildlife Service stabbed us in the back.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service promised Tucker County residents they would not purchase any land beyond the original 3,000-acre tract and that the refuge would be open to multi-uses, including mountain bikes. At the time, mountain bike tourism was a strong component of Canaan Valley’s tourism economy. The valley hosted the original 24-hour mountain bike race, which brought in an estimated $1.5 million a year. Davis was rapidly becoming known as the Durango of the East. The area’s mountain biking reputation was due in large part to the trails within and surrounding that 3,000-acre swath of land that would become the National Wildlife Refuge. Soon after being established, the refuge purchased more private land, expanding to 16,000 acres and quickly closed access to all trails.
“They eliminated hundreds of miles of singletrack and Davis’ mountain biking reputation took a hit,” Knight says. “We had to move the 24 hour race. When those trails were closed, the word was out in the mountain biking community that Canaan Valley was dead. There’s still plenty of singletrack outside the refuge, but our reputation took a hit. It’s just now bouncing back.”
Jackie Burns, visitor services representative for the refuge says it was all a misunderstanding. “All 16,000 acres were acquired from willing private sources and every refuge that acquires land undergoes an evaluation process where it’s decided what trails to keep open and what trails to close based on compatibility with the refuge’s mission. The rule is things are closed until we determine compatibility. There are no trails until the refuge studies them.”
For most Tucker county residents, no amount of explanation will suffice. To them, it’s simply a matter of bait and switch on the part of the DOI.
“The refuge was a big lie,” says Matt Marcus, president of the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association and a Davis resident since 1988. “They told us one thing and they did another. As for building a new national park in the area, the park service has that legacy to deal with. The DOI has a credibility problem around here.”
Beyond the distrust of the federal government, what keeps most of Canaan’s outdoor community from jumping on board with a national park is land access and trail restrictions. They simply don’t want to wake up one morning and be banned from their own backyard. They don’t want another wildlife refuge debacle. Traditionally, national parks are even more restrictive when it comes to land access than wildlife refuges. Hunting is usually prohibited (except in certain types of park designations) and mountain biking is traditionally non-grata. Both restrictions concern local citizens.
“Hunting is a sacred cow in West Virginia and mountain biking is a significant piece of the economy here in Tucker,” Matt Marcus says. “Would they shut down our singletrack? Would they allow hunting? Would they charge people to access the national park? Locals are used to accessing the forest for free. Would all that change? Personally, I’d like to see a big national park in the area, but only if these considerations were addressed. Right now, I haven’t seen a proposal for the park that takes these concerns into account.”
Even certain members within the conservation community wonder whether a national park in West Virginia’s Highlands is feasible considering the politics and fervor of Tucker residents. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, one of the most successful and active environmental organizations in West Virginia has remained neutral in regards to the national park proposal, refusing to comment for or against the park.
Matt Keller, campaign coordinator for the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition doesn’t see the proposal gaining any local support. “The national park proposal would most likely entail acquiring private land and that’s the main problem in Tucker County,” Keller says, adding that the time and energy of the environmental community might be better served focusing on other campaigns like Wilderness. “Instead of acquiring new properties, we should work to protect the land we already have. And if you look at the public land that’s already in Tucker, it’s amazing. That area is already heavily protected.”
<h4>My Land, Your Land</h4>
More than 41 percent of Tucker county is currently owned by the federal or state government. Of the private land that is left, a vast majority is owned by out of state entities like Western Pocahontas and Allegheny Power, which leaves Tucker residents with very little land to call their own. Local citizens seem to be more worried about losing the small amounts of private land they have left to an overzealous government than to an overzealous developer.
“Why do we need a national park?” asks Roger Lilly, owner of Blackwater Bikes in Davis. “The government already owns most of the land anyway.”
But Rodd and the Friends of Blackwater question whether the existing protections are strong enough. West Virginia state parks aren’t exempt from logging practices and according to Rodd, the national forest isn’t doing a good enough job protecting its own land. “There’s a fear among the environmental community that everything’s for sale.”
Rodd is speaking both figuratively and literally. Since Bush announced plans to reverse the Roadless Rule, one of the most significant conservation measures in America’s history, national forests across the country have been transferring tracts of land from protective prescriptions to logging prescriptions. The Monongahela National Forest is in the process of revising their management plan and, according to forest spokesperson Kate Arling-Goodrich, the Mon is going to recommend an alternative that is a compromise between environmental protection and resource extraction. The preferred alternative, however, increases the amount of land eligible for logging from 43 percent of the Mon to 69.8 percent. Bush’s controversial proposal to unload 300,000 acres of national forest land added legitimacy to the “land for sale” paranoia. Twelve of those parcels totaling 1,500 acres sat within Tucker County. Recreationists and environmentalists alike say shifts in management practices over the last several years suggest the forest service is more interested in managing their lands for the good of the timber companies than for the good of the American people.
“The forest service tends to flap in the political winds,” says Dave Saville, president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “So there’s always the question: is the forest service going to do the right thing?”
All signs indicate the forest service is not going to do the right thing in the Blackwater Canyon. In 1997, 3,000 acres of privately held land within the Blackwater Canyon was purchased by Allegheny Wood Products, a timber company out of Charleston. The canyon, referred to as the “crown jewel of West Virginia” serves as a foundation to Tucker County’s tourism economy. The Blackwater Canyon is a 10,000-acre chasm that’s home to a popular rail grade trail as well as the class V Blackwater River. You can stand at the back entrance of the Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge and look into the deep, green gorge as its walls rise from the Blackwater River some 800 feet below. The forested canyon twists for miles into the horizon, as if someone took the Grand Canyon and planted trees up its rock walls. What you don’t realize when you’re standing on the rim of the canyon, is that most of what you’re seeing is owned by Allegheny Wood Products (AWP) and has been selectively logged off and on for the last ten years. While not ideal according to most environmentalists, the logging has left the canyon intact. But AWP wants to do more than log the canyon. They want to build condos. And gated communities. Vast second home neighborhoods scattered throughout the steep landscape. AWP has plans on file with the state for four such developments throughout the canyon. In order to gain access to log these parcels of land more completely, AWP has asked the forest service for an easement to turn a portion of the Blackwater Canyon Trail, the popular rail grade, into a logging road. The Blackwater Canyon Trail is a rail grade that qualifies for historic preservation status according to the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation. The trail was slated for rails to trails development by the department of transportation as part of the mitigation for an expansive highway project three years ago and was intended to connect existing sections of the popular Allegheny Highlands Trail, serving as the “missing link” for an extensive rails to trails system. In spite of all this evidence to the contrary, the forest service almost immediately granted AWP’s request to turn the potential rail trail into a logging road.
Depending on who you talk to, John Crites, owner and general manager of Allegheny Wood Products is either a right wing property rights zealot or a progressive steward of the forest’s resources. One Tucker county resident, who insisted on remaining anonymous, says Crites purchases environmentally significant pieces of land just so the government can’t get hold of them. The resident points to the Blackwater Canyon purchase and the more recent Cheat Canyon purchase as evidence for his theory. Shortly after purchasing the Blackwater property, Allegheny Wood Products began logging the canyon and applied for wastewater permits to accommodate condo developments. In 2001, AWP purchased roughly 3,500 acres of the Cheat River Canyon, outbidding Governor Wise (who planned to turn the land into a wildlife management area) and started similar logging practices on that property.
“He’s a property rights idealist,” the Tucker resident says. “You can’t negotiate with idealism.”
AWP insists that it is a steward of sustainable forestry and points to a number of environmental awards the company won in the ‘90s. AWP also sold 25 acres of the Blackwater Canyon to West Virginia and donated additional acreage for a sizable tax deduction (all of which became Blackwater Falls State Park). Crites and AWP insist their record of selling and donating land to the state proves the timber company is a willing environmental partner. Environmentalists accuse AWP of “greenmail,” buying environmentally significant land, logging it, then selling it to the state at a premium after the resources are extracted. Some in Tucker County even suggest Crites floated plans for housing developments in Blackwater Canyon just to drive the price of the land up before selling it to the state.
No matter who you believe, AWP has been reluctant to discuss selling its current Blackwater holdings and the plans for development are still on file with the state. Meanwhile, there’s a growing interest in Canaan Valley as a second home destination. With Corridor H currently in the planning stages, the valley is poised to become Washington D.C.’s next suburb.
“With the political environment that we’re in, the pressure on wild lands is increasing greatly in West Virginia,” says Matt Keller. “Certain parties want to see second home development increase. They want to see timber increase. Unfortunately, with the forest service, how these pressures play out is anyone’s guess. It depends on who’s in the White House and who’s in charge of the forest service. It all depends on politics.”
In order to understand the concern that environmentalists have for West Virginia’s forests, you have to take a look at the sprawl of nearby metropolitan areas like Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh. And Roanoke and Richmond. Cleveland and Philadelphia and Baltimore. The list of neighboring large cities is endless. Canaan Valley and the West Virginia Highlands are within a day’s drive of one third of the nation’s population, and that population is looking to the valley for their vacation and second home destination. And who can blame them? The valley offers everything they’re not getting in their big city abodes: green space, solitude, and that always-attractive slower pace of life. The population of Tucker County hovers around 7,500, split between a handful of small towns that look like something out of a TV show from the black and white era. Davis has 740 residents. During the winter, people ski to the store. During the summer, they bike.
“It has a lost in time feel,” says Bill Smith. “It’s a garden spot. As more and more green space is taken up in cities like D.C. and urban sprawl becomes worse and worse in those communities, Canaan Valley becomes more and more attractive.”
People are looking to West Virginia because, like the state’s slogan says, West Virginia is still wild. In a lot of ways, West Virginia is the last state in the country to be settled. The Mountain State’s population sits at 1,816,000. Compare that to the population of neighboring states like Virginia (7,567,000), and Maryland (5,600,000), and Ohio (11,464,000), or Pennsylvania (12,429,000) and you see that West Virginia has population numbers more consistent with western states like Utah and New Mexico and Idaho. Even the tiny state of Rhode Island has more permanent residents than West Virginia. W.Va. was also the last state to receive an East to West interstate, which wasn’t completed until the late ‘80s. Tucker County itself only has one stoplight. In 419 square miles. The mountains themselves, largely encompassed by the Monongahela National Forest, still don’t have a convenient road system. While the mountainous regions of neighboring states like Virginia and Tennessee have been carved up by four-lane highways and massive tunnels that defy the steep terrain, drivers in the Highlands of West Virginia are still at the mercy of the mountain’s curves. Driving thirty miles in Tucker or Randolph county could take you all day.
But all that is changing. The new interstate project, Corridor H, will cut drive time from D.C. to the valley in half, from a curvy four hours to a breezy two hours. The project will permanently link the sleepy community to one of the busiest and most populated cities on the eastern seaboard. Some say the streets will be paved with gold when Corridor H comes. Others fear Canaan Valley will become a suburb for the ever-growing beltway sect.
Thanks to projects like Corridor H, the Mountain State, which is largely made up of rural communities like Davis and Thomas in Tucker County, leads the country in urban sprawl. A significant portion of the United State’s population is moving to West Virginia because it’s the last bastion of wilderness on the Eastern seaboard, and in the process, they’re threatening the very thing they seek out of the state. In Fayetteville, a real estate company out of Atlanta is even trying to build 2,000 upscale homes along the rim of the New River Gorge.
“There’s a property value boom in West Virginia,” says Dave Saville of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “We’re losing farm and forest land faster than any other state. Tucker County is at the center of that.”
On the southern edge of Davis there’s a sign advertising luxury town homes starting at $219,000. Further down the road toward the ski resorts is another sign for a new exclusive neighborhood called Tuscan Ridge where half-acre plots start at $100,000. Drive further south and a brand new luxury home community encompasses miles of the landscape.
Locals complain real estate prices are already through the roof in Canaan Valley. Matt Marcus, a resident of the valley since the mid-80s, says home prices have tripled in the last several years. “The people that work at the ski resorts can’t afford to live here. It’s becoming like Vail, and we don’t want that.”
The national park proposal is seen by some as a cure-all for the impending development boom in the valley. “Right now, nobody’s looking at Corridor H and the interest in second homes in the area,” Rodd says. “They’re not seeing it coming. You need to set aside enough public land to accommodate the coming boom. We have to do it before it all gets divided up. National parks aren’t managed for multi-use like national forests. You don’t timber in a national park.”
But most residents don’t see the development going much further than the current housing projects already on the ground. “With the amount of public land we already have in the area, we don’t foresee a huge amount of development on the horizon,” Says Bill Smith of the Tourism Bureau. “Even with the impending second home boom, this area will remain a garden spot. To further government acquisition for a national park would be ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, Tucker County and its small towns like Davis and Thomas are floundering. with unemployment rates almost twice that of the national average and very little tax-based income for daily operations.
“Tucker needs money,” says Jeremy Golston, owner of Highland Prospects, a new outfitter that took over the old bank building in downtown Davis. “The county has a problem running its schools, its buses. That’s why so many locals are excited about the new home developments. Those homes will increase the tax base. But a national park will equal tourism dollars down the road. The park will increase trail tourism, and Davis and the valley need to build on trail tourism.”
The notion of trail tourism is exactly why the majority of the community is outraged by the forest service’s reluctance to protect the Blackwater Canyon Trail. You might not be able to get locals behind a national park proposal, but everyone in the county wants to see the rail grade trail protected. To Tucker County, the Blackwater Canyon Rail Trail would be money in the bank.
<h4>The Next Durango?</h4>
Ride several miles of the Blackwater Canyon Trail from Douglass Falls to Hendrix during the summer and you’ll get the occasional shot of the river below. Ride it in the spring and fall and you’re treated with constant views of the dark Blackwater River with its large gray boulders and clay-red rocks. The trail sits halfway up the canyon, the forested walls rising steeply to your right and dropping off even more dramatically to your left. On your right side, the thick green forest is occasionally interrupted by bulbous rock outcroppings and waterfalls, which start high on the mountainside and tumble beneath the trail before cascading toward the river on your left. That’s where AWP wants to build the condos, between the trail and the river. You can ride or hike the trail now, but it’s rough going and there’s no infrastructure. No guide services, no shuttles, no marketing. Canaan Valley has this gem of a tourist attraction, and they can’t do anything with it because it’s future is uncertain.
“The DOT promised to turn the Blackwater Canyon Trail into a rail trail three years ago,” says Laird Knight. “Every year that trail goes undeveloped, Tucker County loses money. The Blackwater Canyon Trail could be one of the premier rail tails in the country. Imagine 12 miles of downhill riding through one of the most impressive canyons in the east. Pedaling optional. You could offer shuttle services from one end to the other. Bike rentals. It would be huge.”
Outdoor recreationists in Tucker often compare the potential of the Blackwater Canyon Rail Trail to the Virginia Creeper, which has almost single-handedly transformed the economy of Washington County, Virginia. The Creeper attracts 200,000 visitors every year, bringing in more than $3 million in trail related dollars annually. Damascus, the hub city for the Creeper, has no less than four outfitters that supply bike rentals and shuttles. The town, which isn’t much bigger than Davis, was able to reinvent itself as “Trail Town, USA,” primarily because of the Creeper’s draw.
“If the Blackwater Canyon Rail Trail was done right, you could build an entire economy around it just like in Damascus,” Jeremy Golston says. “Damascus built the infrastructure to support the Virginia Creeper and that town is thriving. My parents have been there three times this year to ride that trail, and they don’t even like the outdoors.”
Local outfitters think a Blackwater Canyon Rail Trail would be even more of a draw than the Creeper simply because of the environment. “You drop 1,200 feet in eight miles through one of the most scenic canyons around,” says Roger Lilly of Blackwater Bikes. “It’s a no-brainer downhill. People love that.”
The forest service, however, is proving to be ambivalent to the economic potential of the Blackwater Canyon Rail Trail. After the forest service granted a logging easement which would allow AWP to turn the trail into a logging road and potentially allow them access to develop the canyon for second home sites, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, asking the forest service to reevaluate the environmental impact of the logging road. Even after a second evaluation and years of public outcry, all indicators point toward the forest service granting AWP logging access via the Blackwater Canyon Trail. It’s the forest service’s handling of this trail that keeps the national park proposal alive.
“We’ve got to stop these logging companies from doing whatever they want with our land,” says Jeremy Golston. “A national park is a better alternative to losing the land we all love.”
Even locals that don’t necessarily support a national park proposal think the forest service isn’t acting in the best interests of Tucker County. “We have four different land management agencies in the valley, and none of them are doing anything for the trails or the community” says Matt Marcus. “They don’t maintain the trails, and they certainly don’t market them. Right now, outdoor tourism in Davis survives completely on reputation, but there’s no infrastructure to support it.”
Locals wonder how long that reputation will last and how much tourism can grow in the valley without the support of the various land agencies operating within Tucker. Judy Rodd sees these concerns as all the more reason to pursue Blackwater Canyon National Park. In Rodd’s mind, the park would solve Tucker County’s two biggest problems: cash flow and trail infrastructure.
“The forest service has a legal responsibility to protect their publicly owned property, but they’ve proved reluctant to do so,” Rodd says. “We’ve also found that the forest service puts no money into recreation and they don’t promote tourism. We want to protect a significant piece of land and also provide an economic driver for the community. A national park will do that.”
Rodd believes a national park would provide the substantial push Tucker needs to change its economic model. The towns of Thomas and Davis were built on coal and timber and some locals believe those two industries are still the life-blood of their home county. But the two biggest job providers in the county are government and tourism. Jobs based on extracting natural resources account for merely one percent of all jobs in the area. According to Western Virginia University, there are only 14 mining jobs in Tucker and the timbering jobs have been too low to count since the ‘70s. Tucker County is shifting from a mining and logging economy to service and tourism. But for many residents, the shift is reluctant.
“Everybody has their own idea about what should happen to Tucker,” says Jeremy Golston. “But there are a lot of older people in the community and in the local government that are happy with the status quo.”
According to an economic impact study commissioned during a campaign to create a national park in the North Woods of Maine, in order for rural communities like northern Maine and the West Virginia Highlands to reverse their economic decline, their economy has to change. “More of the same is neither possible nor desirable,” the author of the study writes.
That economic study concluded that the closer an area was to federal lands, the higher the economic activity. Additional studies of gateway towns to national parks show “real income” of those communities growing at twice the national average. Job growth increases at three times the average. Harpers Ferry National Park in Jefferson County, W.Va. generates $9.6 million in annual sales for local businesses and provides 300 private sector jobs. Currently, the majority of private land in Tucker County is undeveloped timberland owned by out of state timber companies. Timberland is taxed at a drastically lower rate than federal land. If those lands were incorporated into a national park, the park service would pay Tucker County several dollars per acre in payment in lieu of taxes, a shot in the arm to Tucker’s languishing tax base.
“There’s a new model for national parks that supports the private gateway communities in building the infrastructure,” Rodd says. “It keeps the cost of operating the park down, preserves the natural landscape of the land, and allows the local communities to reap the greater economic benefit. A national park is the positive vision for the future.”
Economics aside, the mountain biking community and hunting community in Tucker County are still weary of the restrictions that come along with national park designations. And all locals are worried about getting pushed out of their homes by an overzealous park service willing to use eminent domain. It’s impossible to predict what the park service would do if Blackwater Canyon National Park became a reality. It’s feasible that a large portion of the park would simply be transferred from the forest service to the park service. It’s feasible that the forest service would simply fill in the gaps by purchasing large chunks of private timberland from out of state corporations, leaving the smaller farms and residences intact. Models of national parks that have hundreds of residences living in and around their borders do exist, serving as an example of co-existence between the federal government and small mountain communities like Canaan Valley. As for the trail restrictions and hunting access concerns, IMBA has recently negotiated mountain bike access to certain national parks. There has even been some national park singletrack opened to mountain bikers in recent years. And Denali National Park in Alaska allows hunting for natives. Compromises within national parks are being made across the board, but they’re slow-going and often rife with litigation. A more likely solution to the access concerns is a national recreation area designation. The majority of national recreation areas are managed by the park service and enjoy all the environmental protections that park service management entails, but still allow hunting and multi-use recreation like mountain biking.
A compromise exists that will allow locals to access the land in the way that they choose while protecting the forest for further generations and providing an economic driver for Tucker County. Each national park unit is managed differently and those differences are open to negotiation. But getting the various interested parties within Tucker County to sit down at the same table to negotiate that compromise proves to be the largest hurdle to preserving Canaan Valley in one form or another.
“Education and communication is what we need,” says Seth Pitt, a Thomas resident who works at the popular Purple Fiddle Café, a magnet for all Tucker County residents. “Right now, there’s a skewed perception on all sides about what people want to do with the land. The misunderstandings need to be talked through, and we need to move past the immediate economic reaction and look toward a more sustainable future, for both the environment and the community.”