New River ordeal a warning for Buffalo’s future

As is being discussed for the Buffalo National River, Congress in 2020 redesignated West Virginia's New River Gorge National River a national park and preserve.

Like the Buffalo River in Arkansas, the New River is a clear, rocky mountain stream that runs through remote country in the Appalachian Mountains. The Buffalo National River is 135 miles long and about 1 mile wide. The New River National Park and Preserve is 53 miles long and 1 mile wide. The New River Gorge is famous for its whitewater and superb smallmouth bass fishing, but it is also the hub of a thriving outdoor adventure industry that revolves around mountain biking, ziplining, rock climbing and hiking.

Ironically, a town called Fayetteville is the hub for all of this activity.

Sammy Pugh, owner of New River Trophy Outfitters in Sandstone, W.Va., said the redesignation intensified visitation to the New River.

"Not much on the ground changed, but visitor numbers and people coming here increased ten-fold," Pugh said. "The infrastructure to handle that was not ready. Parking lots, restrooms, road access, lodging, all that kind of stuff, was not adequate."

As a proprietor, Pugh said more visitors are great for business. As a resident, he said it has been an adjustment.

"I own a business that caters to outdoor people," Pugh said. "My business just went through the roof. However, as a resident, there's just people everywhere now."

The biggest problem, Pugh said, is that there is not room within park boundaries to create the necessary facilities to accommodate visitors. That is true with the Buffalo National River, as well.

Members of The Runway Group seem to be ahead of the "infrastructure" deficiency on the Buffalo. They have bought about 6,000 acres between the Buffalo River and I-49. That's where the big proponents of outdoor adventure tourism intend to build lodges, hotels, bike trails, ziplines and other facilities. They are well positioned to develop the "infrastructure" to serve a quarter million or so additional visitors before their own activities drive land prices into the stratosphere.

Pugh said something similar happened on the New River when the Boy Scouts of America bought 10,000 acres adjacent to the park.

"It was a weird situation with the Boy Scouts," Pugh said. "They had their world jamboree and their national jamboree here. This was supposed to be a big boom to the local economy during these weeks, but it was not. The Boy Scouts are pretty much self contained in all aspects of lodging, food, et cetera, so there was no real impact for local business."

Expect the same if the Buffalo National River is redesignated. The people ramrodding this proposal will get all the business. There's not much room for economic development outside of what the Runway members are planning.

Curiously, The Runway Group said one reason to redesignate the Buffalo National River is to preserve hunting, fishing, and other traditional uses of the Buffalo River. Those uses are already protected in the legislation that created the Buffalo National River.

Pugh said the same issue arose on the New River.

"When it was getting redesignated, it became a preserve with hunting and other opportunities that people wanted to keep," Pugh said. "In the beginning, the push from the government was maybe do away with hunting or tail it back. That philosophy kind of changed. They put in areas where you can't hunt, safety zones and what not, but they also purchased more land where you can hunt. As far as hunting and other outdoor activities, people have the ability to do what they did before."

The visitor demographics to the New River have conspicuously changed, Pugh said.

"It's bringing in a more affluent type of visitor," Pugh said. "Whole families are coming, and they stay for a week. They used to stay for a day or two."

This has also dramatically affected the real estate market in the New River area.

"Land prices have gone through the roof here," Pugh said. "They're building a lot more cabins and ziplines, ATV tours, rock climbing, mountain biking. You can look at a tax map now and see a lot of companies and diff name property owners buying large tracts. That will definitely happen on your river, too."

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