Opposition eases with parks, forests compromise

Opposition eases with parks, forests compromise
Published: Mar. 14, 2022 at 7:05 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Opposition has eased over legislation that opens the door to private investment at state parks and forests in West Virginia.

Ken Caplinger was among those who recently spoke out against House Bill 4408, but amendments that passed on Saturday gave him greater comfort Monday afternoon.

He had worked in the parks system for nearly 35 years and retired as its director in 2013.

“I don’t think it’s nearly as likely that we’re going to see inappropriate development or improper development as result of the amendments that were made,” Caplinger said.

House Bill 4408 sought to extend authority already granted at six state parks, including Beech Fork, Chief Logan, Stonewall Jackson Lake and Canaan Valley.

Delegates voted 68-29 late Saturday to concur with amendments already approved by the Senate. Their vote came in the last 30 minutes of the state’s 60-day regular session.

Senators had passed their compromise 22-10 earlier Saturday evening. It now awaits signature by the governor.

The legislation will allow for private investment at almost every state park and forest -- money that can lead to new recreational, lodging and ancillary facilities.

Senator Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said that includes greater access for those with disabilities.

“The absolute, number one thing, they were trying to accomplish with this bill was access to the beauty of West Virginia, our state parks,” he said of the administration in remarks from the floor.

But unlike the House version, the Senate compromise restricts private investment to new facilities. It requires that investment to keep with the park’s original purpose and provides greater accountability and a public hearing so you can have your say.

“Our local folks around these parks and forests know those areas and their great and intrinsic value better than anybody else,” Caplinger said. “They’ll come and speak from the heart.”

But for some, concern remains.

Sen. David Stover, R-Wyoming, has worked and volunteered in the parks for decades leading hikes, campfires and other activities.

He told fellow senators Saturday evening this could be the only way to infuse significant investment in state parks, but he also worried the cost and voted ‘No’.

“It could be a really good thing for parks,” he said. “It could be. I’m not saying it’s not. It could be a bad thing for parks. It could destroy the soul of parks. It could do that. I don’t know that it will, but it could. It’s a complex issue.”

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, successfully pushed another amendment. It pertained to Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County -- making it the only park or forest exempt from the new law.

The reason - its worldwide designation as a dark sky park.

“The night viewing at Watoga is unparalleled,” Woelfel told senators. “This is an opportunity. If you’ve been to Watoga, you know what a unique place it is and just because of where its set up geographically, I don’t believe we any, any development that certainly could have a chance to impair this attraction for that part of our state.”

Delegates complained that dark sky areas near Watoga did not get the same exemption, but opted to pass the bill anyhow as the clock counted down to midnight Saturday.

Two environmental groups that stood in opposition -- W.Va. Rivers Coalition and the W.Va. Environmental Council -- said they appreciate the amendments, but still expressed concern and vowed to keep watch going forward.

Caplinger is cautiously optimistic and said only time can reveal the true impact for a legacy and trust held for generations to come.

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