W.Va. parks, forest privatization bill leads to concern

W.Va. parks, forest privatization bill leads to concern
Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 6:54 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - West Virginia is home to 35 state parks and eight state forests. While they each capture a unique aspect of the state’s beauty, a legislative proposal with hopes to enhance the recreation areas is causing concern that it could do the exact opposite.

“They’re intended to preserve parts of our state that are beautiful and house different animals and different species of plants, and I think it’s really important to keep those places as pure as possible,” Samantha Elswick said about the state parks.

But she and others worry that a proposal at the Capitol could ruin that splendor.

Environmental groups singled out a bill Thursday that would open every state park and forest to private investment.

“If people want to go to amusement parks or ride ATVs, there are places to do that in West Virginia,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “We are just asking to give consideration that this one percent is protected and preserved for its natural qualities.”

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Mark Dean, R-Mingo, said the proposal simply extends authority already granted at six state parks, including Beech Fork, Chief Logan, Stonewall Jackson Lake and Canaan Valley.

Dean said no problems have occurred in those spots since the initial legislation passed 14 years ago. He believes the new bill brings the potential of zip lines and mountain coasters.

“Well, as the chair of the committee, I saw it as moving our tourism forward, our state parks forward and bringing more things for even our residents to do,” Dean said.

Those speaking at Thursday’s press conference worried about failed attempts to amend the legislation before it passed the House. Those efforts would have blocked casinos and ATV trails.

Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, represents an area with several state parks. She voted against many from her own party in opposing the measure.

“I’ve spent hours, upon hours, upon hours of my life in our state parks growing up,” she said. “I want to make sure they maintain the natural beauty they have so that future generations of West Virginians can have the same experiences that I got to have growing up.”

Dean said any changes would need approval from the individual park director and a state director -- with notice given to a legislative oversight committee.

He explained a provision to extend such contracts from 25 to 50 years was to necessary to limit prices and protect private investment.

But that doesn’t satisfy Elswick.

“State parks, first and foremost, are to preserve that piece of nature,” she said. “They are not intended to make money.”

Those at the press conference acknowledged that casinos and ATV trails have not opened in parks where privatization has already occurred, but their worry is that the new law would open that door for future governors and legislators.

The legislation, House Bill 4408, currently awaits consideration by the Senate Finance Committee. The 60-day session ends a week from this Saturday.

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