NEW RIVER GORGE, W.Va (NewsNation Now) — When Kyle Kent isn’t teaching high school social studies, you can find him scaling the Appalachians as a mountain guide.
“It only took a couple of days for me to realize ‘Oh wow, I love this place and I think I want to make this home.’ It came real quick, as you can see here, it’s breathtaking and it came real quick,” said Kent who co-owns Appalachian Mountain Guides.
But, since it’s become a national park, you can definitely tell that there’s an uptick in interest.
These days, the phone keeps ringing and his income has gone up 30% already over last year.
“I think you’re always going to be caught off guard a little bit when it actually starts and you’re like ‘Oh wow, my phone is not stopping, and wow, I have six new emails to respond to. But did definitely expect that getting that national park status would get people to come here,” said Kent.
Park ranger Lisa Perkowski-Sisk is also keeping busy since the New River Gorge was designated a national park and preserve last month. Visitation is up 15% over last year. If the pandemic had any positives at all, she says one was reintroducing Americans to the great outdoors — drawing them to the lush, emerald slopes of West Virginia.
“It also has helped them see the value of staying in the country as well, and maybe opening up some opportunities that they may not have taken advantage of prior,” said Perkowski-Sisk.
The New River is not new at all. It’s actually one of the oldest in the world — with millions of years etched into the walls of the canyons.
But not everyone in the area welcomes change.
“They took over 4,000 acres and said it’s a national park — no hunting. So that was the problem that hunters, people like me, had with it. Not against the park,” said hunter Larry Case.
Case policed the mountains and river for the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources for 36 years. He’s now retired and most of his time is spent hunting and writing about guns.
The majority of the New River Gorge is classified as a preserve, where hunting is still allowed, but for Case, it will always be the land where generations of conservation-based hunters have wandered.
“I’ve been called selfish for this. Hunters have become selfish. I hope you get where I’m coming from. I do not see it that way. Hunters today in this day and time, we have to be passionate about keeping our public access land. They’re not making any more land, and this was promised to us 40 years ago,” said Case.
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), who worked on the legislation to make the gorge the 63rd national park, says hunters and fishermen are top of mind.
“There are only 7,000 of those acres are in the National Park, the other 63,000 are open for hunting, fishing, and all kinds of outdoor activities,” she said. “So we tried to make sure of that. Everybody’s needs were considered because hunting is an extremely important sport in our area.”
Some have also expressed reservations about the millions of people the national park designation will draw to this quiet piece of paradise. Also, the lack of infrastructure and parking, the trash they fear will come with the crowds.
But in a state whose main industries of coal and timber are fading Kent sees hope.
“Hopefully, tourism can continue to bring money in here,” he said “And do I think it’s the one-stop ticket to fix all of West Virginia’s problems? No, but I think it’s a good step in the right direction to get Americans to come see this state that’s not been on a lot of people’s radars until now, so it’s exciting.”