National parks are a big destination for many. As summer approaches and pandemic restrictions fade, towns are preparing to see many visitors in the coming months.
Jeffery Hearn is preparing for a busy summer season.
“Climbing is one of the main draws to this area, originally being whitewater [rafting], then climbing, mountain biking is growing too,” Hearn said. He has climbed here for years and manages New River Mountain Guides.
He knows the space well and knows it’s becoming more popular.
“More visitors, more climbers.”
This gorge in the Appalachian Mountains has transitioned from being a national river to a national park.
“It’s going to bring a lot of people, and with our increased visitation already, we’re seeing heavy impacts, especially at this climbing location we’re at today,” Hearn said. “Soil compaction, erosion.”
“It’s going to get loved to death even more,” he said.
The New River Gorge National Park is the first national park in West Virginia and the newest in the U.S.
“We are the 63rd national park,” Eve West, Chief of Interpretation and Cultural Resources at the New River Gorge National Park, said. “December 27, 20303 was actually the day the legislation went through.”
Since then, the park has been preparing for the visitors that will come with its new name. Eve West is there to educate people about it.
“We’ve always known this was worthy of national park status. We’ve always known it was a special palace and a gem. A little-known gem in the national park system,” West said.
National parks, in general, are seeing more visitors. From 2018 to 2019, visits went up by about 4 percent from about 87,714,135 to 91,010,784, according to the National Park Service.
“That brand kind of puts us into a different category. So a lot of people, when they come to, say they come here from Europe or France, they want to see all the national parks,” West said.
However, more visitors can cause growing pains in neighboring towns like Fayetteville.
“Our business is way up, traffic through town is way up,” Maura Kistler, Co-owner at Water Stone Outdoors, said. The shop has been around for nearly three decades.“We sell anything you need to rock climb, backpack, hike, anything you do outdoors we can help outfit you to do that. And our sales in all our categories are up,” she said. “This whole issue of re-designating our national river into a national park has been controversial, and there are strong sides on either side. Our concerns going into this process were that we already had infrastructure problems, and we desperately need to level up. So while we’re happy to have a national park, we are concerned about finding the money to level up our parking and expand our offerings.”
“The impact of tourists is just huge, in both positive and negative ways,” David Corsun, a hospitality expert and Director of the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the University of Denver said.
“I really expect national parks to be at capacity this year or close to it, and what that means for a local community is one. For anybody who owns a local business, it means a lot of revenue. But it also means a lot of traffic; it means pollution,” he explained.
Some work is already being done to lessen the impact, like making more distinct trails for visitors.
“You being there kills vegetation, vegetation dies, soil disappears, and time and land are the two things that aren't made anymore. So if it disappears, we can’t get it back,” Hearn said. “If we contain traffic to certain areas that can handle the impact, then we can slow it down or stop it.”
The question is -- will it be enough.
“We've got some leveling up to do and some sorting out to do, but I believe this park is going to be a win for us for certain,” Kistler said.
“Time will tell,” Hearn said.