November 2, 2013
J.L. Campbell and John Manchester: Birthplace of Rivers opportunity too special to miss

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wild and Wonderful. That slogan has described the Mountain State for 150 years, and for good reason. In such a small state, public lands such as the Monongahela National Forest mean so much to each and every West Virginian, and the value of conserving these special places for our residents and communities cannot be overstated.

We are truly blessed with incredible resources in our mountains, and we have managed to capitalize on the beauty of our forests and scenic byways, the popularity of our rivers and trails, and create important tourism-based economic opportunities.

Lewisburg and Sutton are two very different towns in two very different parts of the state, but without a doubt, each community is positively impacted by the Monongahela National Forest. That is why we support the community-crafted proposal to create a Birthplace of Rivers National Monument.

Visitors to campgrounds, backcountry areas or trout streams stop in our towns to spend their hard-earned dollars at local shops, restaurants and inns. Our residents cherish the easy access and proximity to some of the best recreation opportunities in the mid-Atlantic. The Birthplace of Rivers National Monument would ensure the permanent viability of the outdoor recreation activities that boost our economies and would protect the access to outdoor traditions that have allowed West Virginians to connect to this special land over many generations.

The national monument would establish stronger protection for an incredible area of national forest land that contains the Cranberry Wilderness, the Highland Scenic Highway, Falls of Hills Creek, Cranberry Glades and Tea Creek Backcountry. But this initiative is about much more than land conservation. It's about honoring our heritage and cultural connection to the mountains. It's about coming together to make sure special public lands will always be used to benefit local communities. It's about promoting our region to make it an attractive place to live, work and visit.

Birthplace of Rivers would be managed by the Forest Service, and the concept is supported by diverse constituencies in our communities and across West Virginia. Monument status is a flexible designation, and stakeholders in the broad coalition have worked together to make sure the proposal meets the needs of all West Virginians.

Local communities will always have a say in the area's management. Groups have collaborated to protect access for hunting, fishing and wildlife management. Since West Virginia doesn't currently have a national monument, there were some concerns, but participation in the collaborative process is the only way to ensure our collective needs are met. Engagement by stakeholders and community leaders is truly what makes this proposal something West Virginians from all backgrounds can come together and rally around.

In Sutton, the citizens do not even need to leave our town to benefit from the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. The Elk River -- one of the six rivers with headwaters resources in the potential national monument -- is uniquely important to Sutton. It serves as our municipal water supply, and recreational opportunities along the Elk River Water Trail drive the town's economy. National monument visitors would bring significant economic benefits to Lewisburg and other gateway communities. It would protect water resources such as Hills Creek, within the Greenbrier River watershed, where local residents fish, swim and get their drinking water.

Research consistently shows national monuments grow local economies, and increased visibility for Birthplace of Rivers National Monument would also help local communities in transition. A recent independent study found that Birthplace of Rivers National Monument could increase local economic activity by $5.2 million each year and could add 42 jobs on top of the 100 full-time jobs visitation to the area currently supports. An additional $800,000 in state and local taxes could be generated each year, thanks to increased visitor spending. At a time when the mentality of "no way, no matter what" has stalled progress and collaboration in the halls of Congress, West Virginia's elected officials must consider this unique opportunity. With our state ranking near the bottom in almost every economic indicator, we should think about how we can seize the rare opportunity for the Mountain State to become a national leader in creativity and innovation, rather than striving to maintain the status quo.

Over the past two years, community leaders in New Mexico, California and Colorado have seen national monuments protect significant landscapes, through a collaborative, engaging process to address concerns of local residents. West Virginia's Congressional delegation should honor the way this opportunity can thrust our state and our communities to the next level of creative, innovative economic success, while honoring our heritage and maintaining our unique way of life.

Campbell is mayor of Sutton, and Manchester is mayor of Lewisburg. 


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