CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fifty years ago this week, the West Virginia Legislature passed a concurrent resolution calling for "the speedy development of the New River Gorge Area into a national playground."
While the development wasn't exactly speedy -- it took until Nov. 10, 1978 for creation of the New River Gorge National River to be signed into law -- the 1963 resolution was otherwise remarkably prescient.
Between the numerous "whereases," the resolution predicted that the New River Gorge would:
• Become "by far the greatest recreational opportunity in southern West Virginia."
• Provide an ideal site for "hunting, float trips, boating, hiking, picknicking, camping and other recreation."
• Require the development of "additional and improved access highways."
• Bring about "new and permanent employment ... through necessary supporting businesses" like motels, restaurants, sporting goods stores and outfitters.
• Go "a long way toward solving the economic problems of southern West Virginia" and have a statewide economic impact.
• Make it imperative for the state to "be ready for the increased number of people who will be seeking recreation" in the Gorge.
A copy of the resolution, submitted by J. Paul England, chairman of the House Committee on Forestry and Conservation, was sent to President John F. Kennedy, along with members of the state's Congressional delegation.
"The National Park Service was reluctant to get involved with the Gorge at first," said former state legislator Robert K. Holliday of Fayetteville, a newly elected Delegate at the time of the 1963 vote. "Getting our Congress people to get on board with the idea played a big part in making that happen."
The 1963 resolution demonstrated to the state's Congressional delegation that there was state support for some type of federal park status for the Gorge. "It was our first notable success," said Holliday, who, along with other members of the Fayette County Development Corporation, had been pushing for park status for the Gorge for several years.
The idea of preserving the Gorge and making use of its recreational benefits dates back to at least 1959, when a U.S. Senate committee on unemployment chaired by Sen. Jennings Randolph, D-W.Va., took up the concept of developing a national park along the river corridor. A study that began the following year concluded that the Gorge's landscape had been changed so much by man-made development that it was probably unsuitable for national park status.
In 1961, the Fayette County Development Corporation called for construction of a new north-south highway passing through Fayette County, using a "high, scenic bridge spanning the Gorge as a spectacular entrance" to a New River Gorge national park. Also that year, the Fayette County Commission went on record as calling for creation of a national park in the Gorge.
In 1973, the Legislature passed a second resolution calling for state and federal officials to work together in designating the Gorge a national park.
In 1974, Randolph introduced a bill to designate the New River Gorge a national park, triggering a four-year debate over whether the area should become a park, or be protected through a designation through the National Park Service's national wild and scenic river program.
By 1977, park advocates and area business and political leaders reached an agreement favoring national river status for the Gorge, since that alternative allowed for greater legislative flexibility. The national river designation had been used successfully to preserve an expanse of the Buffalo River in Arkansas and two rivers in Missouri's Ozark Mountains.
The following year, Randolph, joined by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Reps. Nick Rahall and Harley Staggers Jr., both D-W.Va., introduced bills adopting that strategy in preserving the New.
On Nov. 10, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the act creating the New River Gorge National River.
Dave Arnold, managing partner of Adventures on the Gorge, said he came across a copy of the 1963 resolution recently while cleaning out a file in his office.
"When you think about what the Gorge must have been like back then, with no good roads, very few restaurants and motels, and the coal industry starting to collapse, it's pretty remarkable that the bankers and businessmen and county commissioners and delegates were able to see what it could become," Arnold said. "They were smart enough to think about diversification, and determined enough to make it happen."
Arnold said that when his paddling days in the Gorge began in the early 1970s, there was no fast food and scarce tourist accommodations.
"The lodge at Hawks Nest was the nicest place around," he said. Now, visitors can find a wide range of accommodations "and restaurants with Salvadoran and Cajun food."
Now crisscrossed by four-lane U.S. 19 and Intestate 64, the 72,000-acre New River Gorge National River brings in 1 million visitors annually to raft, kayak, climb, bike, hike, hunt, fish, camp, watch birds and wildlife or take in the view.
"These days, we have all kinds of stuff going on in the Gorge," said Holliday. Some activities, like Bridge Day and its BASE-jumping component, along with rock climbing, bouldering and zipline riding, weren't even on the radar when the 1963 resolution was signed. Neither was the Bechtel Summit Scouting Reserve, which will bring hundreds of thousands of other visitors to the Gorge starting this year.
"I always thought it would become a big recreation area that would help out the whole state," Holliday said. "I'm happy to have seen our idea come to fruition. It's something to be proud of."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.