Hidden Treasures-West Virginia

Cross-posted from Appalachian Voices

A ruggedly beautiful landscape makes the Mountain State a huge draw for outdoor enthusiasts, but environmentally destructive mining practices pose a growing threat to attracting eco-tourism.

Mountaintop Removal Threatens Outdoor Mecca

By Jesse Wood

Rafting the New River. Photo courtesy of River Expeditions.Rafting the New River. Photo courtesy of River Expeditions.

Once a booming coal town in southern West Virginia, Fayetteville thrives today because of the outdoor recreation and tourism industry. Yet mountaintop removal threatens the town as coal once again creeps closer to Fayetteville.

“As coal mining waned, tourism picked up the slack and boosted the economy,” said Mark Lewis, executive director of West Virginia Professional River Outfitters. “Most of the places in southern West Virginia where mining occurred didn’t have that. They didn’t have the New River Gorge to fill the void.”

In 1968, the late Joe Dragan started West Virginia’s first commercial rafting business along the New River. His vision of the area for outdoor recreation resulted in the New River Gorge becoming part of the National Park System (NPS) in 1978. Ten years later, the NPS established the Gauley National River Recreation Area.

“We have the New River and the Gauley, two of the best rafting and kayaking rivers in the country, and they are only about 15 miles apart,” Lewis said.

Last year, commercial rafting outfitters guided 140,000 people down the New and the Gauley.

“A lot of the commercial activity is due to the rafting industry, but private kayakers, as well as the climbers, make up a significant part of the economy,” Lewis said.

Climbing didn’t prosper in the New River Gorge as early as whitewater did, but the area, with 1,600-plus rope routes, draws thousands of climbers throughout the world each year.

The shift to an economy based on outdoor recreation and tourism altered the town’s demographic and culture. Lewis described Fayetteville as a sleepy town in the ‘80s, where most of the activity revolved around the courthouse.

Forest Management Falls Short

By Jillian Randel

A timber management project introduced in the Monongahela National forest doesn’t come without controversy. The Upper Greenbrier North Project will include timber harvesting and regeneration projects, and has citizens complaining about possible risks to the environment. The project fails to address a number of threatening concerns. Regeneration efforts include fencing off certain areas to keep out deer, while failing to address the greater problem of deer overpopulation; extensive use of herbicides that are not favored for heavy applications; and stream restoration plans that fail to address riparian systems as a whole. The project also fails to address the endangered northern squirrel population that relies heavily on the Monongahela Forest to repopulate. Visit: Greenbriar North Project Comments to comment.

“There weren’t near the number of restaurants or little businesses in town,” said Lewis. “It’s very different than most towns you’ll find in southern West Virginia because of the whitewater and climbing. This is a unique little eclectic community. It really transformed the town.”

In 2006, Outside magazine named Fayetteville a top-ten destination in the country for its paddling, climbing, biking and trail running.

But that isn’t the only top-ten list the area made. In 2010, American Rivers, a conservation organization, named the Gauley among America’s Most Endangered Rivers because of the devastating effects of mountaintop removal.

As mountaintop removal creeps closer towards Fayetteville, the town, and in turn the economy, may be ruined.

“People of Fayette County are really concerned,” said Stephanie Tyree, organizer for Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC). “It’s one of the few areas in the state where tourism has really taken off. You see our state propaganda, ‘Wild and Wonderful,’ yet, just in the backroom, they are blowing up the mountains.”

Unfortunately, the backroom is only 3 ½ miles from town. In the past, surface mining took place on the edges of Fayette County.

“This is the first time surface mining has been right in the center of the county,” Tyree said. “It basically surrounds Fayetteville and the New River and is creeping closer.”

Frasure Creek Mining, a subsidiary of Trinity Coal, which is owned by the Indian conglomerate Essar Group, has three active surface mining permits, with six more pending or under review, near Fayetteville.

“This is the number one recreation destination in West Virginia,” said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for OVEC. “And now we have an Indian company buying up all these mountaintop removal permits and with them, they are going to blast away this beautiful tourist hotspot.”

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