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A National Park in West Virginia?

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Over the holidays, my wife and kids and I set out for a few days of cross-country skiing in the mountains of West Virginia. Enraptured by the landscape, we were nonetheless disappointed by the weather: the temperatures never dipped below 40, and there was no snow on the ground, or in the forecast. Last year at this time, there had been feet.

As we drove disconsolately out of the fabled Canaan Valley, the clouds opened up and it started to pour rain. As if to mock our musings about global warming, our next three hours were spent navigating narrow, sloppy mountain roads stitched between an endless series of coal mines. Coal trucks barreled along in both directions, blanketing our windshield with a thick, wet gruel of coal dust. By the time we got out of the mountains, our melancholy over leaving one of the country's most beautiful places had been tempered by relief at escaping one of its most degraded.

So it has ever been for West Virginia, a place blessed with beauty and grotesque exploitation in equal measure. A state that has long struggled to build a sustainable economy has -- like many such places around the country, and the world -- been forced to sell its native resources to the highest bidder. With coal-fired power plants serving as the very face of global warming, spreading their filthy fingers far beyond the state's beleaguered valleys, the time seems ripe to find a more benign source of jobs and revenue.

Now, this month, comes word that the National Park Service will begin surveying some 750,000 acres in the region, with the prospect of creating what some are already calling the High Allegheny National Park and Preserve. What the surveyors will find is magnificent: sections of the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests; the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area (the latter a climbing mecca with thousand-foot vertical rock face); the Dolly Sods Wilderness (a unique micro-climate featuring tundra and heath not typically seen this side of Canada); the Otter Creek Wilderness; the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge; and Blackwater Falls State Park. Beyond its natural beauty, the region is steeped in Native American, Civil War, and cultural history, not least the folk and bluegrass music on nightly display at places like the Purple Fiddle Café in the town of Thomas. The survey is supposed to be completed by September.

Local reaction to the prospect of a new national park has ranged, predictably, from frothy enthusiasm to outright antagonism. I spoke to a number of folks who work in the valley's tourism business -- working the cash register at local diners, watching the desk at hotels, tuning cross-country skis -- and their feelings reflect the hopes and anxieties I have heard in other parts of the country where the tourism economy comes freighted with real benefits and significant risks. Nature tourism would surely be a more sustainable economic engine than coal mining, shale-gas drilling and slapdash commercial development, they said, and would surely push property values higher. But that same development -- hotels, second homes, resort communities -- would also likely push local residents out of their own housing market. Hunters worry about being shut out of their traditional hunting grounds, though park advocates say large sections of the "preserve" would remain open to hunting and fishing.

These are legitimate concerns. I know people who work in Vail, Colorado who - especially since a much ballyhooed "billion dollar facelift" in that resort valley -- now have to commute 45 minutes because million-dollar ski chalets have moved the housing market far beyond their reach.

But I have also spent a good deal of time in New York's Adirondacks, a state park the size of Vermont (and larger than Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon and the Great Smokies National Parks combined) that is the very model of both a functioning ecosystem and a sustainable community. Despite being within a day's drive of some 60 million people, the Adirondacks is still the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi, with 2,000 miles of beautifully maintained hiking trails, 3,000 lakes and ponds and more than 1,200 miles of protected rivers and streams. More useful, to local West Virginians imagining a national park in their backyard: the Adirondack park from the beginning was designed and managed with the interests of its year-round residents in mind. The region absorbs nearly 10 million tourist visits a year, but also manages to support a vibrant and sustainable local economy, with nearly 100 villages and 140,000 year-round residents. Done right, a national park in West Virginia could accomplish some very important things: a major addition to the country's environmental treasure chest; a source of reliable jobs to help wean the region from its dependence on coal; and a way for the region to maintain and even nourish its deep and abiding cultural history. All that, and some snow, would be very nice indeed.

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