By Ben VanCamp,American Whitewater
One of West Virginia’s most treasured outdoor resources and 23 million dollar local economic engine for the fall tourist season, the Gauley River, is under pressure from landowners to limit access for private non-commercial paddlers. American Whitewater (AW) was notified late last week that two outfitters will discontinue their long-standing policy permitting private paddlers to access put-in and take-out locations in the river’s mid-point. Without these accesses, the only alternative is to paddle the entire 26 miles of whitewater from Summersville Dam to Swiss. This is too much river for all but the strongest paddlers.
Lost Paddle Corporation is a partnership between Imre Szylagyi of Appalachian Wildwaters and Class VI River Runners, represented by Dave Arnold. The company owns all of the Gauley river-right land between Sweets Falls and Koontz Bend. Like many outfitters throughout the country, they have generously permitted private paddlers to cross their land almost two decades.
When the Gauley River National Recreation Area was created the law required the Park Service to purchase an access area at Woods Ferry. The key parcel for this access is owned by Lost Paddle Corporation. After eight years of negotiations and two formal government assessments the Park Service and the outfitters are still miles apart on a price. Although the outfitters care about the land, they also see it as a business investment that they have held for over 18 years. The outfitters feel that the price they receive should reflect its worth in other uses, like sustained yield timbering or second home development.
As the talks stalled, Lost Paddle Corporation has become increasingly uncomfortable with their role as a free public access provider. The outfitters have told AW several times that the current improvised access arrangement would have to end soon. Now they are seeking, in their own words, to create a crisis that will force the Park Service to buy their property for public access.
The Gauley River is a unique natural treasure and has been consistently rated as one of the top ten whitewater runs in the country. The Upper section is a challenge for experts; the lower run is a delight to advanced paddlers. Roughly 20,000 non-commercial paddlers travel to run the river each year. The American Whitewater Gauley Festival, run in late September, has roughly 5,000 paid admissions. The combined impact of these activities contributed significantly to the rural economy of Summersville and Beckley. A 1996 economic analysis identifies the total economic output of paddling activity at over 23 million dollars.
American Whitewater has been in contact with Gauley NRA Manager Cal Hite and West Virginia Congressman Nick J. Rahall and is working diligently to find legal ways for private paddlers to access the river during Gauley Season.
New information will be posted on the American Whitewater web site as it becomes available, www.americanwhitewater.org