CHARLESTON, W.Va. – With outdoor tourism on the rise, private investment is at an all-time high with the West Virginia Tourism Office reporting that the Tourism Development Act Tax Credit reflects more than $250 million in the past two years–more than double the investment seen in the first 14 years of the program’s existence. Increased interest in state parks lead lawmakers to consider opening up the parks to contracts with private entities.

House Bill 4408 was introduced in the West Virginia Legislature in late January. The bill would allow the Division of Natural Resources Director the power to enter into a contract with third parties to allow them to construct and operate on state parks and forests for up to 30 years and an option to renew for additional 20 years. As it currently stands, only six of 35 state parks allow for private leasing under 10-year contracts that can be renewed for another 10 years. The bill passed in the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Finance Committee.

On Thursday, the West Virginia Environmental Council held a virtual press conference to voice opposition for the bill. The main concern of the group is that the bill does not put limits on the type of development on the parks, explaining that if unchecked, things like casinos and amusement parks could be built on state lands.

“Our concern is, based on what we’ve seen in the action on this bill so far, that lawmakers are interested in opening privatization of activities like casinos, like amusement parks, like off-road vehicle trails,” explained Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, “And we know this because, on the house side when amendments were introduced to put some guardrails or limitations about the type of privatization that can happen in state parks and forests, those were rejected.”

Rosser continued to say that state parks represent just one percent of land in West Virginia, and that tourists come to these places for the quiet qualities and to enjoy nature, and that building certain types of businesses could disrupt the character of the parks that currently keeps people coming back.

“If people want to go to amusement parks or ride ATVs, there are places to do that in West Virginia. We are just asking to give consideration that this one percent is protected and preserved for its natural qualities.”

Del. Chris Phillips, who represents Barbour County and parts of Tucker County, is one of the delegates sponsoring HB 4408. He argued that those restrictions probably wouldn’t be necessary because the bill requires any facilities constructed to be in accordance with West Virginia code §20-5-3.

“The purposes of the Section of Parks and Recreation shall be to promote conservation by preserving and protecting natural areas of unique or exceptional scenic, scientific, cultural, archaeological, or historic significance, and to provide outdoor recreational opportunities for the citizens of this state and its visitors.” 

WV Code §20-5-3

“Obviously, that’s outside the bounds of the purpose, powers, and duties of the Section of Parks and Recreation,” Phillips explained, “People have legitimate concerns about things because you never know what could get slipped in, but this is very clearly to just expand recreational opportunities at state parks, and that’s the purpose and intent of the bill, and I feel confident that that’s what we’re going to see out of it.”

The WV Environmental Council is also concerned from a financial side that private investors could go bankrupt or abandon their lease without cleaning up their project. They explained that privatizing public land could price out locals who use the parks.

“When we compared the four least expensive publicly managed lodging facilities to the four least expensive privately managed facilities, we found that you’re going to pay more than 82% more to stay in those privately managed than public facilities,” said Rosser.

On the other side, Phillips said he believes this bill could not only attract more tourism to the state but keep West Virginians from vacationing outside of the state.

“Anything we can do to bring visitors in, or even keep staycation visitors at home–people who are going to Myrtle Beach and spending their money, if we can attract them in-state and keep those recreational dollars here, we certainly need them,” said Phillips.

The 2022 Legislative Session ends next Saturday, March 12.