The National Park Service is purchasing property from two West Virginia landowners to improve public access to the Gauley River. The sites, located at Woods Ferry and Mason Branch, are established put-in and take-out sites for boaters, kayakers, canoeists and rafters along the river between the public put-in at the Summersville Dam and the take-out at Swiss, almost 26 miles downstream.
The National Park Service purchase from Lost Paddle Inc. and Janet and Imre Szilagyi will place the property under the management team of the New River Gorge National River, Gauley River National Recreation Area and the Bluestone National Scenic River.
“Providing public access to the Gauley in this area is what I envisioned when sponsoring the federal legislation which established the national recreation area back in 1988,” said U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV). “This agreement will enhance tourism and the local economy by making the river more accessible to the general public.”
“This acquisition is critical for the park service to perpetuate public access to important put-in and take-out sites on the Gauley River National Recreation Area,” said Park Superintendent Don Striker. “While much of the public has been ably served by the commercial raft companies with river access, the National Park Service can now ensure access for a variety of recreational users, including commercial rafting companies and private boaters who own their rafts, kayaks and canoes as well as fishermen, hikers and others who want to experience this fabulous natural resource.”
For fifteen years, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a nonprofit conservation group, has partnered with the property owners to provide shuttle service for thousands of private boater who use the Mason Branch take-out. The landowners allowed the West Virginia Rivers Coalition to operate the shuttle on the land at no cost. The shuttle service is a fundraiser for the nonprofit organization that asks for a donation of $5 per boat.
“We are very supportive of the transfer of this property to NPS and applaud the commitment of the landowners to ensuring river access in the future,” said Shanda Minney, executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “We have been happy to work with the landowners for the past 15 years and have offered to continue to support use of the property during the transition from private to public ownership and beyond.”
Park Superintendent Don Striker complimented the many partners who have helped to provide Gauley access for the last fifteen years and indicated that such partnerships will be necessary in the future.
“I have asked our Chief Ranger Gary Hartley and my assistant Lorrie Sprague to immediately form a team to determine our interim use strategies for Mason Branch and Woods Ferry,” Striker said. “Because we do not own enough property to provide adequate and safe public parking, I anticipate that we will continue to need the critical shuttle services coordinated by the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the help of American Whitewater to most efficiently provide public service at these sites.”
The national nonprofit American Whitewater also applauds the sale. “As an organization dedicated to conserving and restoring America’s whitewater resources and encouraging people to use them safely, we appreciate the efforts of everyone involved in this acquisition, which ensure that the public will have access to the river,” Mark Singleton, executive director, said.
Singleton emphasized that public access to the river is an important contributor to the local economy as well. “American Whitewater commissioned an economic impact survey for the 2007 Gauley River Festival and learned that the festival alone generates approximately $1.1 million of economic impact for the area on just one weekend,” Singleton said. “There are five other fall Gauley weekends every year when paddlers enjoy the river.” This impact does not include the contributions of boaters who are using commercial services on that weekend.
The appraisal and sale were coordinated through The Nature Conservancy, a leading conservation organization that works to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Nature Conservancy considers the Gauley River and its gorge to be one of the natural jewels of the Central Appalachians. The forests, streams and river shores support a diverse wealth of plants and animals, including a federally endangered shrub called Virginia spiraea.