Several opponents, a few supporters, and some undecided local residents attended a public meeting at Marlinton Municipal Building on Sunday afternoon to discuss a proposed national monument in Pocahontas County. Randy Sharp, of Marlinton, a vocal opponent of the monument proposal, organized the meeting.
“The Antiquities Act of 1906 is what started national monuments,” he said. “It was more or less made to stop stealing from Indian graves and ancient sites out West. Some of the places out there were territories at the time and had no representatives in Congress. In order to speed things up, Congress gave the President power to designate national monuments. Like anything else that the government gets their hands on, it’s blown over and been abused.”
An alliance of different groups, including the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Trout Unlimited, support the proposed monument, which would encompass more than 122,000 acres in the Monongahela National Forest, including the 48,000 acre Cranberry Wilderness.
Sharp and other opponents contend that monument designation would bypass the established planning process for National Forest lands, pave the way for more restrictive national park designation, and jeopardize hunting and fishing rights.
Sharp introduced guest speaker Donald Phares, a retired West Virginia Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist and outspoken opponent of the monument proposal. Phares said he had just one major issue with the proposal.
“There’s really only one – we don’t know nothing about it,” he said. “We don’t know what’s coming. It could be anything. It could go to national park status with no problem at all. We don’t know if there’s going to be fees. We don’t know how private land is going to be treated. They say there’s not going to be any private land in it, but you don’t know how that line is finally going to be drawn., It’s simply the fear of not knowing and having very little chance to change it, once it is established.”
West Virginia Farm Bureau President Charles Wilfong attended Sunday’s meeting.
“I’m opposed to it,” he said. “The main reasons being, the implications it will have for the use of the land in the future, whether folks will be able to continue to have it for hunting, and what the restrictions will be. In many cases, national monument designation is just the precursor to national park inclusion. About half the national parks in the United States started out as national monuments and they were transferred to the Park Service for management.”
A national monument can be created by an Act of Congress or by presidential declaration. Despite strong local opposition, Wilfong fears President Obama will make a monument declaration.
“I haven’t run across anybody in the state, except for the extremists in the environmental community, that are pushing this thing,” he said. “If it had to go through congressional designation, I don’t think it would ever happen, because the support’s just not there at the state or national level. But with a presidential declaration, I think it could happen, just because the folks that the President would be looking to please with this are the handful that are really pushing it.”
Mike Costello, with the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, answered questions about the monument proposal during the meeting. Costello said he understands why there are concerns.
“We don’t have a national monument in West Virginia, so it’s understandable to have concerns about the designation,” he said. “The concerns are valid and it’s important we find ways to address them. Our goal is to work towards a West Virginia-based solution for one of West Virginia’s most special places.”
Costello said pending legislation threatens the Monongahela National Forest.
Sometimes initiatives like this aren’t taken seriously until there’s a direct threat to the land,” he said. “Because the area hasn’t seen drastic changes in the last several decades, many are inclined to believe it will always just be the way it is. The reality is, however, the National Forest is temporarily managed, and several bills pending in Congress aim to bring drastic changes to the way places like the Monongahela are managed. These bills strip opportunities for public input and gut the laws designed to protect these places from widespread industrial development. The actions of Congress have certainly opened the eyes of a lot of people, even those who once opposed the monument, who now realize we can’t simply do nothing if we want places we enjoy to remain the way they are for future generations.”
Costello cited a March 2013 letter from U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell to the Pocahontas County Commission, in which Tidwell addressed the commission’s concerns about a monument designation.
“The Forest Service currently manages seven National monuments, and there is no reason that a potential monument on the Monongahela National Forest would not also continue to be managed by the Forest Service,” Tidwell wrote.
Tidwell’s letters said monument designation typically does not affect area management.
“Regarding your questions on various management activities — hunting, fishing, trout stocking, camping, vegetative management treatments, etc.,– what is permitted under the current forest plan would typically continue as a National Monument,” the letter reads.
The letter states that a monument management plan would be developed using the same process as a National Forest management plan.
“In addition to any management guidance provided in the proclamation itself, a management plan for the monument would be developed post-designation in accord with all public outreach, notice and public input required of any National Forest management plan,” Tidwell wrote.
Costello said the coalition of monument supporters is growing.
“The proposal process is still in an input-gathering phase,” he said. “Our coalition continues to grow and we are moving forward with a proposal that addresses local concerns. It is important to us that we continue to collect additional input from stakeholders at the local and state level. We’ve collected input,
made specific revisions to the proposal and strongly advocate for bear hunting and trapping to continue. We’ve removed around 10,000 acres in boundary adjustments suggested by local feedback.”
To see the proponent’s draft proposal for a Birthplace of River National Monument, see birthplaceofrivers.org.