Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine and is republished here with permission.
By Danielle Taylor
What will be President Obama’s legacy? The Affordable Care Act? The death of Osama bin Laden? Or perhaps his public lands legacy. President Obama has designated or expanded 27 national monuments and protected more than 550 million acres of public lands and waters, more than any other president.
Unfortunately, only 23 of more than 120 current national monuments are in the East. West Virginia currently has none. However, a group of Mountain State conservation advocates, businesspeople, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and other citizens has organized to secure a federal designation for the proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument.
“There are no landscape-scale national monuments in the East,” says David Lillard, special projects manager with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “There’s a need and a worthiness in the East as well.”
The proposed national monument centers on the existing 47,815-acre Cranberry Wilderness, which lies within the Monongahela National Forest in east-central West Virginia and drains via the Cranberry and Williams Rivers. To encompass the headwaters of the adjacent Cherry, Gauley, Elk, and Greenbrier Rivers, the monument boundaries strategically include approximately 75,000 additional acres, also within the national forest, in two sections along the Monongahela’s northeastern and southern borders.
The naturally diverse area already attracts hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers, anglers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts. Increased awareness of the area could bring more visitors to the “wild and wonderful” landscape. Protecting the area as a national monument would provide a wide range of benefits for West Virginia, where a West Virginia Rivers Coalition poll showed that 84 percent of voters support the proposal.
Why create a national monument? First, says Lillard, a national monument designation, unlike a national forest, would permanently protect the land from industrial development, a significant step in this fossil fuel-rich state.
Second, this measure would help ensure the purity of the rivers, a critical step given that millions of people downstream depend on them every day for fresh, clean drinking water. Just two and a half years ago, a massive chemical spill into the Elk River polluted more than 300,000 people’s tap water, which highlighted the vital need to protect this resource. Clean headwaters also facilitate positive recreation experiences downstream for fishing and paddling. More than 90 percent of West Virginia’s native trout streams fall within the proposed monument’s borders. And creek boaters flock to the headwaters of these rivers.
Third, says Lillard, a monument designation would help guarantee that any future logging remains at a sustainable level.
Finally, the designation of the monument would significantly boost tourism revenue throughout the area. According to an economic impact study commissioned by the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, the monument’s designation would create 143 jobs, increase visitor-related spending in communities surrounding the monument by 42 percent, and generate more than $14.5 million in economic output annually. Similarly, land-management research group Headwaters Economics studied the local economies of communities bordering or adjacent to 17 national monuments in the western United States from 1982 to 2011, and they found that jobs grew at four times the rate of similar communities that didn’t have a national monument as a neighbor.
National monuments can be created either by a majority congressional vote or by a signed presidential designation under authority of the Antiquities Act. “We’ll take it either way,” says Lillard.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association and the West Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited have also joined in advocating for the monument. And over the past several months, Lillard has witnessed many local community members adjacent to the proposed Birthplace of Rivers site evolve from skeptics to advocates.
“There’s been a strong groundswell of local support around the area where the monument would be,” he says. “They’re self-organizing and have local leadership on the ground with more plans to boost community engagement. A number of outdoor and tourism businesses have been rising up and saying they really want this for West Virginia. We even have ‘Birthplace of Rivers info centers’ now. At 14 local shops, they have maps people can take and postcards at the counter.”
In mid-May, Lillard and three Pocahontas County, W.Va., advocates traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with representatives from President Obama’s administration to discuss the Birthplace of Rivers proposal. Upon arrival, they delivered 1,500 letters of support for the monument to the president.
“Around the beginning of this year, the focus of this campaign shifted strongly toward the president,” Lillard explains. “He has indicated there will be more monuments designated. We’ve been meeting with his administration’s monument people for a long time, and they’re very interested.”
A presidential precedent of sorts exists for departing commanders-in-chief to establish 11th-hour public lands on their way out the door. For example, during the first seven years of President Clinton’s two terms in office, he designated one national monument. In his last year, he established 19, with seven of those only becoming official in his last week and a half in the White House.
Although many West Virginians have fully embraced this proposal, others have expressed concerns that the national monument designation might restrict access to the area, especially since the management plan for the landscape wouldn’t be fully developed until after the president or Congress approves the designation. The West Virginia state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation has expressed concern over the president’s potential use of the Antiquities Act to establish the monument, which in their view would be a federal backdoor that bypasses public approval.
To ease these concerns, Lillard explains that sustaining current levels of access both now and for future generations is one of main motivations guiding the designation push.
“For the most part, we would take the current management plan,” he says. “Our proposal calls for some more restorative forestry, spruce in particular, but most things would continue to be what they are now. We feel like the proposal addresses the concerns, and we welcome anyone to voice their concerns. One of the biggest developments over the past few months has been that many former opponents are now at the table and see how the monument can be good for West Virginia and how they can have a role.”
If designated, the monument would remain under the management of the U.S. Forest Service. In a January 2013 letter to the then-president of the Pocahontas County Commission, U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell wrote that, “Typically, as has been the situation on recent Forest Service monuments, monument designations complement the underlying management plan — which is developed with public input. If hunting and fishing are permitted under the current forest management plan, that would typically continue as a national monument.”
Lillard agrees. “National monument status would allow the Forest Service to continue to manage it. We are not trying to create a national park, and we certainly don’t want to create more wilderness there or exclude people using it currently. What’s there now is what we want to keep. There are other types of protection, and we think this is the highest level of protection available.”
To help increase publicity for the proposed monument, in May paddlers and Birthplace of Rivers advocates Matt Kearns and Adam Swisher spent two weeks journeying from the Elk River’s headwaters in Southern Monongahela National Forest to the mouth of the river in Charleston. Throughout the “Elkspedition,” they shared information about the proposal with everyone they met. On the final day of their adventure more than 100 fellow Birthplace of Rivers advocates joined in for a flotilla escort of the last few miles.
In a blog post, Kearns describes a day where the duo had the river to themselves. “It was great to have such solitude, but the best part of Elkspedition has been meeting so many West Virginians on and along the river,” he says. “We can tell that support for designating Birthplace of Rivers National Monument is strong here.”
Said Swisher afterwards, “As President Obama wraps up his second term, designating this monument would be a significant way to ensure his lasting legacy in the Mountain State.”
Learn more at birthplaceofrivers.org