By Nadia Ramlagan for WVNS
Gov. Jim Justice is expected to sign legislation to allow private leasing of the state’s public parks and forests, but critics worry there are not enough safeguards to protect West Virginia’s public lands.
Ken Caplinger, former superintendent of West Virginia State Parks, explained the current law does not require upfront environmental assessments for development. He said he understands the need for some types of development, but is worried natural habitat and waterways could be compromised.
“There’s nothing wrong with selected, appropriate private development, you know, if it’s done with proper environmental planning,” Caplinger acknowledged. “It would be nice if parks would update their master plans.”
Currently, private leasing is allowed on land in six state parks, but House Bill 4408 would include all 35 state parks and nine forests to be leased for development for up to 50 years.
Supporters, including the state’s Tourism Department, argued now is the time to capitalize on the influx of tourists into the Mountain State.
Caplinger also pointed out the law could pave the way for casinos, amusement parks and other large-scale development projects, which could undermine the scenic beauty, wooded trails and wildlife viewing making the state a popular outdoor recreation destination.
“Just look across the border from West Virginia, along I-58 up in Maryland state parks at Rocky Gap,” Caplinger noted. “There’s a casino there. I suspect Maryland State Parks wishes that they had never done that.”
According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Park Service, access to public lands boosts physical activity, improves mental health and reduces stress. Parks can also help protect property loss by discouraging development in areas prone to floods, mudslides, wildfires and other natural disasters.