“The national attention being focused on the mounting need for public outdoor recreational facilities holds great promise for the development of parklands in West Virginia.” - Senator Robert C. Byrd, August 28, 1962
West Virginia’s tourism industry, ignited by a number of major projects spearheaded by its congressional delegation in the 1960s and 70s, has become one of the largest components of the state’s economy today. In the past few months, we’ve highlighted a few of these projects, including Senator Byrd’s proposed Allegheny Parkway and Congressmen Harley O. Staggers, Sr. and Ken Hechler’s work for wilderness areas in the 1970s. Today, we are taking a look at another project initiated by West Virginia Congressman John Slack and Senator Byrd in the early 1960s: the proposed Coal River National Recreation Area.
In the 1960s, with the coal industry throughout the state entering a period of decline, West Virginia’s congressional representatives began exploring new industries to support the ailing economy. In 1961, Congressman John Slack introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish a national park at the Coal River. At the urging of the Department of the Interior and its secretary, Stewart Udall, the idea of a national park was abandoned in favor of developing a recreation area. Several similar projects were being proposed around the same time, including Senator Byrd’s bill for the Spruce Knob/Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on September 28, 1965.
However, the prospects for the Coal River did not fade with the abandonment of the recreation area bill in the 1960s. Local citizen groups, aided at times by their members in Congress have worked to address the environmental issues with the river and to advocate for its use for recreation. These efforts continue to the present day. Since 2004, a non-profit organization called the Coal River Group has taken up the mission of restoring the river and advocating for recreational use. The work of the Coal River Group was acknowledged by the state of West Virginia in 2009 and 2011 when it awarded the organization the “West Virginia Watershed of the Year.” It is the only such organization in the state to receive this award twice.
The Coal River represents an important collaboration between the people and their representatives in Congress. Though no formal recognition of the river as a recreation area has been approved, the efforts of Congressman Slack, Senator Byrd, and countless local citizens have resulted in a greatly-improved state for the Coal River.