By Jody Brumage
The New River is one of West Virginia’s most widely-known natural landmarks, thanks to its status as a National River and its iconic bridge, the third longest single-span arch in the world. One of the oldest rivers in the world, the New River flows from North Carolina northwest into Virginia and West Virginia where is eventually becomes the Kanawha. When Congress passed legislation to bring the New River under federal protection in 1978, Senator Byrd wrote to President Carter, saying that a “national river designation would make West Virginia the home of a fine new national recreation area. Visitors from other states would be welcomed to share with us the excitement and pleasures of one of America’s oldest natural wonders – The New River Gorge.”
Efforts to preserve the New River Gorge in West Virginia began in the early-1970s. Senator Jennings Randolph made several attempts to introduce legislation to create a national park or similar protection for the region. In 1974, Senator Randolph engaged the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation to investigate the potential of creating a New River Gorge National Park and began holding public meetings to gather input from his constituents. In order to address the concerns of coal companies who owned land in the gorge and right-of-ways to the river itself, Senator Byrd secured an appropriation for the Department of Interior to conduct a coal study in the region.
While the battle for preservation continued in the courts and the legislature, West Virginia’s Senators Byrd and Randolph were busy gauging the public’s stance on a national park or similar protected region on the New River. Senator Byrd coordinated with the Department of Interior to hold public meetings, cosponsored by local recreational leagues and chambers of commerce to allow for public comment. Constituents voiced concerns including the loss of private property as well as access to the river for boating, fishing, and hunting. The impasse between industrial concerns, constituent opposition, and federal agencies left a bleak outlook for the creation of a national park or the inclusion of the New River under the wild and scenic rivers program.
By October 1978, the Senate and House passed the legislation creating the New River Gorge National River. In the almost forty-years since the designation of the national river, New River Gorge has become one of West Virginia’s premier recreational destinations. Senator Byrd contributed to the further expansion of amenities for the national river, including visitors’ centers and the restoration of the town of Thurmond. Today, the national river continues to draw thousands of visitors from around the country and the world to its natural and historical landmarks.