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Environmental Peril Or Economic Promise? What’s At Stake In The Debate Over West Virginia’s Wilderness

Environmental Peril Or Economic Promise? What’s At Stake In The Debate Over West Virginia’s Wilderness

By Jordan G. Teicher

The Monongahela National Forest comprises 917,000 acres of protected land in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia. Within its borders are the headwaters of six rivers — the Cranberry, Cherry, Elk, Gauley, Williams, and Greenbrier — a black bear sanctuary, a series of bogs that shelter rare plants and migratory birds, the site of a former federal prison, and the state’s second-tallest waterfall. For decades, mountain bikers have ridden the trails of its Tea Creek Backcountry, trout fishermen have fished the streams of the Cranberry Wilderness, and motorists have enjoyed the views of the Williams River Valley from its Highland Scenic Highway. When locals go there, they see a landscape their parents and grandparents enjoyed. They see history, and they see permanence.

Today, there are national monuments in 30 states and the District of Columbia as well as several U.S. islands and territories. None of them are in West Virginia, and none in the east are on Forest Service lands.

Mike Costello, executive director of the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, looks at the Monongahela slightly differently. For the past few years, when he’s visited the forest — or, more specifically, a 123,000-acre stretch in and around the area’s Cranberry Wilderness — he’s seen something else: a piece in the puzzle of the state’s economic future, and a catalyst for re-shaping its identity. You won’t find it on any maps, and right now, it only exists in the minds of those who wish to see it become a reality — and those who want to see it stopped — but if Costello has his way, West Virginians and people across the country will soon see it the way he does, as the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument.

A national monument — like a national park, a national forest, or a national wilderness — is a land designation that comes with distinct federal protections. While some are authorized by Congress, most national monuments have been designated by presidents, who are given the power to protect “objects of historic and scientific interest” without Congressional approval under the Antiquities Act. More than 100 national monuments have been established since President Theodore Roosevelt declared the first, Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower, in 1906, the same year the Antiquities Act was passed. Today, there are national monuments in 30 states and the District of Columbia as well as several U.S. islands and territories.

None of them are in West Virginia, and none in the east are on Forest Service lands. Since 2013, Costello — along with a growing coalition of elected officials, recreation groups, and businesspeople — has been trying to change that. If successful, he says, it could bring jobs, tourists, and money to a state that desperately needs it.

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Mike Costello, Executive Director of the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition.

Mike Costello, Executive Director of the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition. [credit: Arielle Milkman]

West Virginia’s slogan is “Wild and Wonderful,” and outdoor tourism is a growing industry in the state. According to a report prepared for the state’s tourism department, the travel industry GDP represents about 3.2 percent of the state total. Travel spending has increased by 6.3 percent per year in the state since 2000, and in 2012, visitor spending supported about 46,400 jobs with earnings of $1.1 billion.

Still, West Virginia’s population is declining more rapidly than any other state and as coal jobs have left the southern part of the state, there’s been considerable debate about whether and how to fundamentally reshape the economy. Some believe West Virginia needs to diversify in order to survive, and tourism is a big part of their equation. Others point to growth in the natural gas and oil industry, and the fact that mining still triples the impact of sectors like tourism to the economy. According to The State of Working West Virginia 2014, from 2005 to 2014, mining’s share of the state’s gross domestic product grew from 7.6 percent to 18.7 percent. Today, West Virginia relies more on mining than all but two states — Alaska and Wyoming — and many think it should remain that way.

For those who see tourism as an economic engine, mining’s dominance has presented setbacks. In January 2014, for instance, a massive chemical spill unleashed thousands of gallons of the coal-washing agent, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, into the Elk River near Charleston, the state capital. For weeks, nearly 300,000 people were told to stay away from local tap water.

“In post-industrial communities we have a tendency to feel we can’t create our own future. That some other industry is going to come in and we’re going to work for somebody else. This to me is absolutely an example that we need to harness our independent spirit and say, ‘This is our chance to create a better economy.’”

After the spill, the tourism industry suffered. Charleston-area restaurants and hotels were forced to close, and business tax collections declined. In response, the state gave the Division of Tourism a $1.2 million boost, but the spill left its mark. That March, the Washington Post reports, the state commissioned a poll of the spill’s effect on travel, and though only 31 percent of people out-of-state brought up the leak when asked about recent West Virginia news, seven percent of respondents said the leak negatively impacted their likelihood of visiting.

Establishing the state’s very first national monument, Costello says, could put West Virginia on the map as a natural destination in a new way — particularly among those who plan their vacations by hopping between national monuments — and combat some of the state’s bad environmental press. “We always see this negative news about West Virginia and no one really likes it,” he says. “Of course they don’t like it. But rarely do we have a chance to feel that we’re getting redemption. What a great step it would be to turn that around to say we’re being honored on a national scale for the values we’re really proud of — our landscape and our culture.”

Further, Costello says, a monument could provide a new source of revenue for local communities. A Headwaters Economics study of local economies surrounding 17 western national monuments created between 1982 and 2011 found jobs grew at four times the rate of similar counties without protected federal lands and saw positive trends in population and per-capita income growth. A report by Downstream Strategies estimates national monument designation would increase visitation-related spending by 42 percent in the area surrounding the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument and create 143 jobs.

“In post-industrial communities we have a tendency to feel we can’t create our own future,” says Costello. “That some other industry is going to come in and we’re going to work for somebody else. This to me is absolutely an example that we need to harness our independent spirit and say, ‘This is our chance to create a better economy.’”

Main Street in Richwood, West Virginia. [credit: Arielle Milkman]

Main Street in Richwood, West Virginia. [credit: Arielle Milkman]

Proponents of Birthplace of Rivers aren’t just making an economic argument; they’re calling for safeguards against potential threats to the environment. According to Costello, many of the Monongahela’s special features are only protected under temporary guidelines, which, in the future, could be changed and opened up to development. The Forest Service estimates that 62 percent of the minerals beneath the Monongahela are federally owned while 38 percent are privately owned. According to Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the Birthplace of Rivers proposal would prevent federally owned minerals from being extracted.

“…when you designate a monument you’re putting a political and social and economic value on the land.”

The proposal, Costello said, was drafted without any specific threats in mind, but he and other proponents got a specific example of how the Monongahela could change last year when Dominion Resources Inc., Duke Energy, and two energy partners introduced a proposal for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would transport natural gas from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia to the Southeast. If one of the proposed routes is adopted, the $5 billion, 550-mile project will cut 30 miles through the Monongahela and the George Washington National Forest in Virginia.

“Local folks are asking: ‘Will this keep the pipeline out?’ There’s no guarantee of that,” says Rosser, whose organization was an early partner in crafting the monument proposal. “But what I say to them is when you designate a monument you’re putting a political and social and economic value on the land. So I think it would be much more politically challenging to run a pipeline through the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument because socially we’ll have put a value on that land.”

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Bob Johnson and Mike Costello examine a mural depicting the Monongahela in Richwood. [credit: Arielle Milkman]

Bob Johnson and Mike Costello examine a mural depicting the Monongahela in Richwood. [credit: Arielle Milkman]

In the years since the monument proposal was introduced, a diverse network of stakeholders — among them recreation groups like the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association and residential organizations like the Eight Rivers Council — have publicly supported the initiative. A few of those organizations, including the West Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited, had opposed the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition’s previous efforts to give tens of thousands of acres of the Monongahela a more stringent Wilderness designation (which, with the passage of the Wild Monongahela Act in 2009, was ultimately successful). But the monument, they say, makes sense because it would more permanently secure the kind of access to the area they enjoy today.

“The Wilderness was an issue that threatened to tear apart Trout Unlimited in this state because they were so opposed it. They looked at the middle fork of the Williams River, which suffered from acid rain. We could not get a road where we could access that river in any way. A lot of people pointed to that and said, ‘Here’s what Wilderness does to our trout streams,’” says Phillip Smith, the organization’s past chairman. “We see [Birthplace of Rivers] as a way to protect these waters but still allow us flexibility. If there’s a creek that needs to be treated, we can still do that within a monument.”

Others — particularly some residents and leaders in Pocahontas County, where most of the proposed monument is situated  — are not convinced that the designation would prevent significant change in the area. Instead, they see it as an arbiter of unwelcome change. Pocahontas County Commissioner Jamie Walker’s family has hunted in the Monongahela for generations, and today he goes there several times a week to hunt black bear, deer, bobcat, and turkey. He opposes the monument. Since the management plan for the monument would only be determined after designation, he says, it could mean restrictions on an area to which he’s enjoyed open access his entire life.

“There’s a lot of things that are not completely understood as far as the ruling of how things are going to be operated after it’s put into place,” he says. “None of that will be voted on or decided on until after the fact. You never know what you’re going to get until it’s too late.”

“We felt there was a period of time we could go out and recruit people who wanted to be part of that conversation but at a certain point it’s clear that the folks who are trying to obstruct the conversation never intended to be part of the conversation and for us we know we have an opportunity to move forward.”

In a January 2013 letter to Pocahontas County Commission President David M. Fleming, U.S. Agriculture Department Chief Thomas L. Tidwell wrote that monument designations “complement the underlying management plan — which is developed with public input. If hunting and fishing access is permitted under the current forest management plan, that would typically continue as a national monument.” Further, he wrote, national monuments “explicitly preserve all valid existing rights (such as grazing or valid oil and gas leases), and do not enlarge or diminish the existing jurisdiction of any state fish and wildlife agencies regarding fish and wildlife management.” In a subsequent letter dated March 2013 to the Commission’s new president, Dolan Irvine, Tidwell reiterated that there’s “no reason that a national monument designation wouldn’t allow” activities like hunting, fishing, and camping “if such activities are recognized and prioritized under the forest plan in place at the time of the monument designation.”

Walker has read those letters, but he says they don’t change his concerns. He’s also not sold on the economic argument. He says the Monongahela doesn’t need a boost in tourism and couldn’t handle it even if there was one: “There’s no room for people to park. They’re parking up the sides of the road in the ditches. When you get law enforcement patrolling it like they do with these national monuments, our opinion is rather than bringing more tourism in we’re going to ruin something we’ve already got.”

Other West Virginia organizations agree with Walker. In a November 2014 letter to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, Charles A. Wilfong, the president of the West Virginia Farm Bureau, wrote that at the organization’s annual business meeting, delegates from across the state voted unanimously to oppose the creation of the monument. “The movement is often billed as a citizen initiative to preserve an area within the Monongahela National Forest. Close scrutiny of this movement finds a thrust from within the environmental community, while the vast majority of citizens oppose the designation and feel the area has been well managed and should be left alone.” The West Virginia Wildlife Federation, meanwhile, considers the designation a “real and present danger to every hunter, angler, trapper, and sportsman of the State.” In an August 2013 letter to West Virginia Congressmen and Senators, President Jerod Harman wrote, “There will inevitably be restricted sportsmen access. Even if hunting and fishing are allowed restrictions to access will essentially close these areas to hunting and fishing.” He also argued that “there are no economic advantages that might be attributed to this proposal.”

Costello says he’s long understood that since West Virginia has never had a national monument there would be more resistance to one than might be found in states like New Mexico and Colorado, which already have national monuments and where residents have more direct experience of what such a designation entails. He says he’d like to get more people to support the initiative, but in the case of opponents in Pocahontas County, he has essentially given up on changing minds.

“We’ve done what we can do,” Costello says. “We felt there was a period of time we could go out and recruit people who wanted to be part of that conversation but at a certain point it’s clear that the folks who are trying to obstruct the conversation never intended to be part of the conversation and for us we know we have an opportunity to move forward.”

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A mural depicting miners in Richwood, West Virginia.

A mural depicting miners in Richwood, West Virginia. [credit: Arielle Milkman]

Opposition to national monument designation is as old as Roosevelt’s declaration of the Grand Canyon national monument, which was strongly opposed by mining operations, who’d discovered troves of minerals there and wanted to develop them. One of the most contested monuments was President Bill Clinton’s 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which he made without informing the state’s local members of Congress or Governor. It proved so controversial nationwide, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have caused any president’s designation of more than 50,000 acres to expire in two years unless Congress approved it, and would have limited the president’s authority to only one national monument designation a year. A similar measure — which would require presidential designations to undergo reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and would limit presidential designations to one per state in a four-year term — passed the House in 2014.

Today, the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante is still contentious, and the opposing sides mirror the divides in West Virginia. Last year, the Idaho Falls Post Register’s Aubrey Wieber reported on the town of Escalante, which saw its population decline after World War II and some of its industry close with the designation of the national monument. When Wieber visited nearly two decades later, “the only people who spoke positively about the monument were transplants running or working for businesses connected to tourism.” Tourism is now responsible for more than half of the jobs in Escalante’s county, which was once dominated by farming and ranching.

Now, Escalante has a booked motel on every block, and out-of-towners have opened restaurants and set up guide operations. Still, longtime residents think the designation hasn’t made an economic impact, and feel burdened by increased federal oversight. “It’s just a damn poor deal,” Arnold Alvey told Wieber. “I can’t see that we’ve gained one damn thing. All it’s gained for us is a bunch of these federal marshals in here, telling us we can’t go here, we can’t go there.”

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Bob Johnson, Mayor of Richwood, West Virginia.

Bob Johnson, Mayor of Richwood, West Virginia. [credit: Arielle Milkman]

Could Richwood, West Virginia, be the next Escalante?

Like the Utah town, the city of Richwood saw its best days before World War II. Mayor Bob Johnson says the population was around 7,000 back then and the city boasted a large lumber mill, a paper mill, a huge tannery, and the largest clothespin factory in the world. On Friday evenings, Johnson says, “the traffic was shoulder to shoulder on both sides of Main Street.”

“We’ve called ourselves ‘The Gateway to the Monongahela’ forever but we don’t give folks real good cause to stop, much less stop and stay. We’re kind of a drive-through neighborhood.”

The last 20 years have seen the population in Richwood drop by a third as timber and mining jobs have dwindled; today Main Street is lined with abandoned storefronts. In December of last year, the sole remaining grocery closed without notice just before Christmas, and Johnson is concerned that the high school, which is celebrating its 100th year, could close in the next few years if the student enrollment continues to decline. In March, Nicholas County, which includes Richwood, announced the elimination of 24 full-time positions, including eight sheriff’s deputies because of a $1.4 million reduction in coal severance taxes.

Despite its proximity to the Monongahela National Forest, Johnson says the city doesn’t get much tourism. “We’ve called ourselves ‘The Gateway to the Monongahela’ forever but we don’t give folks real good cause to stop, much less stop and stay. We’re kind of a drive-through neighborhood,” he says.

He hopes that could change with the designation of the national monument. If more people visited, he says, some might be convinced to stay, move into some of the empty houses, and start some businesses that could contribute to a badly needed economic renewal.

“At this point it would take a huge economic shot in the arm of some description and Birthplace of Rivers could be at least a part of that process,” Johnson says. “Is it the one shot fixes all? Not a chance. But it needs to be part of everything that’s looked at to bring our economy back toward a positive light.”

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Richwood, West Virginia. [credit: Arielle Milkman]

Richwood, West Virginia. [credit: Arielle Milkman]

Since he took office, President Obama has established or expanded 19 national monuments adding up to 260 million acres — more than any other president in history. In July, he designated the latest: Berryessa Snow Mountain in California, Waco Mammoth in Texas, and Basin and Range in Nevada.

According to John Haynes, a national press officer for the Forest Service, national monument designations “can happen very quickly or they can drag out for years.” Generally, they start with local organizations and only start to gain real traction once a state legislator or congressperson introduces a formal proposal.

Though several mayors and local politicians have supported the Birthplace of Rivers plan, proponents are still looking for their champion at the state level. Several, including Costello, have called on Senator Manchin to get involved, as he did with the Wilderness designation, but so far he has not publicly supported or opposed the initiative. Senator Manchin did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Still, Costello says he’s hopeful that designation could still happen during Obama’s second term and that legislators like Manchin will start to come around.

“If we don’t do anything with it and we don’t honor it in a way that would draw people in and create an economy it would just be a wasted resource,” he says. “If we just sit around and hope that some day there’s going to be a timber company or a coal company that extracts everything from here it’s still a wasted resource. This is a chance to make sure it’s a valued resource forever.”

Jordan G. Teicher is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He writes for Slate and Wired, among other publications.

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1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    October 01, 2015

    Thank you for featuring Richwood, WV and bringing attention to the conservation of West Virginia’s natural environment!

    Reply

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