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Public lands or private profit? West Virginia RV campground debate raises questions over role of state parks


Public lands or private profit? West Virginia RV campground debate raises questions over role of state parks

Apr 27, 2023 | 8:14 am ET
By Ellie Heffernan and P.R. Lockhart/Mountain State Spotlight
One of the lakes at Cacapon Resort State Park. Photo by Ellie Heffernan.

One of the lakes at Cacapon Resort State Park. Photo by Ellie Heffernan.

This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter 

On warm spring days, the forests of Cacapon Resort State Park sprout bushy, lime-green leaves as people walk along wooded trails, fish in the lake, birdwatch or share a meal at a picnic table.

For nearly a century, the park’s old forests, sweeping views and peaceful waters have attracted visitors, many seeking a nature-filled respite from the Baltimore-Washington D.C. rat race. But the park holds a particularly special place in the hearts of local residents who often gather there with friends and family. 

“When I bring my grandkids over here, it’s the happiest time I can imagine,” said Craig Thibaudeau, who lives nearby. He recalls fond memories of playing with his grandchildren on the swing sets or beaches and fishing with his brother from Texas.

So when state officials announced plans to build a private RV campground in the park and one of the proposals included several hundred campsites, he was concerned. 

“You lose the humanity of this park if you go corporate,” Thibaudeau said. “And that’s the bottom line. It’s the humanity that makes it so special.”

In public protests, he and dozens of others argued the environmental and social consequences of the development would be devastating. 

The outcry eventually led the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to abandon the current campground effort entirely, and the agency is now seeking public input on what facilities it should add to the park.  

The fierce debate over the RV campground at Cacapon was the first test of a law passed last year allowing private development of facilities in almost all state parks. While the project is on hold, the law remains on the books and state officials could explore development at Cacapon or another park in the future, setting up another struggle over the role of private companies on public land.

Why a request for campground proposals sparked intense backlash

The dustup over development in Cacapon Resort State Park started in December, when the WVDNR put out a request for proposals from private companies interested in developing both campgrounds and recreational facilities at the park. 

“The WVDNR welcomes community engagement for this development project and will work with local stakeholders to maintain Cacapon’s natural environment as currently enjoyed,” Commerce Secretary James Bailey said in a March statement releasing the three proposals received from different companies, all for a combination of RV campgrounds and other amenities. 

One plan, by a Harpers Ferry-based company, would create 50 RV campsites and also provide a shuttle service. A second proposal by a Berkeley Springs-based company sought to partner with the park on the development of an RV campground on nearby private land. 

The third plan by Blue Water Development in Maryland, contained a number of options, including the creation of as many as 350 RV campsites, a floating dock called an aquabana, mini-golf, and in one proposal, a “snowflex” that would involve using artificial snow to support year-round skiing and snowboarding. 

Community members quickly rallied against this plan, launching local protests, community meetings, and an online petition to withdraw the request for proposals that received more than 1,000 signatures. 

They argued that hundreds of campsites and the recreational facilities would create a disruptive amusement park-like atmosphere and advocacy groups raised concerns that some of the new amenities would affect the affordability of the park. 

“Cacapon is a very unique, very mountainous area,” said Mike Jones, the public lands campaign coordinator for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “Putting in these kinds of mega-projects is just incompatible with that.” 

In a letter to state officials, the Morgan County Commissioners said that a large RV campground would strain already struggling sewer and road infrastructure and “diminish many of the reasons that folks visit our park to begin with: the natural beauty, the historical significance, and the peaceful tranquility.” 

State parks officials canceled a public hearing set for mid-April after a lawsuit brought by a citizen argued that they did not notify the public as required by law. Several days later, they announced that they would not be moving forward with any of the three proposals and would seek further public input.

Critics note a new state law allows for private development in parks

While plans for an RV campground at Cacapon have been put on hold for the time being, advocates pointed to the proposals as confirmation of their concerns around HB 4408, a bill passed in 2022 that allows for private companies to develop projects and facilities in all state parks, except for Watoga State Park, the state’s largest. 

The proposal was heavily criticized by environmental and conservation groups when it was introduced last year, with local groups, and some former state parks employees arguing that the measure would lead to development projects that could irreparably damage the parks and would also effectively privatize significant parts of them.

“Our state parks, up until this administration, never seemed focused on being profit-making centers, at least not for private businesses,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

In an email, House of Delegates spokeswoman Ann Ali noted that the 2022 legislation was requested by the WVDNR. Del. Mark Dean, a Republican from Mingo County and the lead sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement that he supported the bill because he “thought it could provide a new opportunity for outdoor recreation to expand throughout the state, especially those activities with high start-up costs.” 

Local residents and delegates however, have criticized the measure in recent weeks. 

“I tried to talk it down. I changed about five or six votes,” Del. George Miller, R-Morgan, told a local online news outlet of his decision to oppose HB 4408 last year after initially backing it. “But it would have passed anyway. We have to deal with it now.”

Residents say environmental concerns are paramount

During recent protests against the proposed development, some residents held signs with sharp slogans, like “CCC does not mean Corporate Cash Cow” – a reference to the Civilian Conservation Corps. The New Deal-era employment program created millions of conservation jobs for young men and hundreds of state parks – including Cacapon.

The park’s roots in a movement intended to preserve public lands made recently proposed development all the more concerning to those living nearby. In addition to aesthetic worries about hundreds of new RV campsites, residents also had environmental concerns. 

Development would’ve likely included cutting down trees on several acres of land, paving over soil with concrete and draining a wetland to create a beach. All of these measures can increase the likelihood of flooding, already a major concern for West Virginia due to its many mountains, valleys and river systems.

Five years ago, park visitors and nearby residents alike were evacuated when the Cacapon River rose more than seven feet above the flood stage.

“They evacuated my street. And it wasn’t voluntary. They stayed there until you left,” said Morgan County resident Dale Kirchner, who filed the lawsuit over the public hearing and lives very close to the park. “So now if you have acres more of runoff – not only for the campground, but the amenity areas – how much worse is that going to be? Do we really want to take a chance with global warming and the storms getting worse?”

Kirchner and others also expressed concerns about safety. If the park could suddenly host an additional thousand visitors, they worried there’d be more campfires and people partying. They worried that could lead to more injuries and forest fires. Just last week, multiple forest fires burned across more than 1,500 acres in nearby Pendleton County, eventually setting ablaze beloved environmental landmark Seneca Rocks.

Such a fire in Cacapon could endanger priceless resources. The park is home to two endangered species, the wood turtle and the harperella, a plant with white flowers that typically grows along shallow streams. It’s also home to old-growth forests, often described as irreplaceable because of their unique ability to provide a haven for biodiversity, reduce flood risk and mitigate the effects of climate change — in a way younger forests can’t mimic.

As state moves forward, local residents say their voices must be heard

After scuttling the current proposals for an RV campground, the state must now go back to the drawing board. The Division of Natural Resources has released an online survey about future development that will be open until late May.

Beyond that, it is unclear what will happen next — neither the WVDNR nor State Parks responded to questions about the now-scrapped proposals or future plans at the park.

But for Morgan County residents, the defeat of the RV campground bids presents a clear victory for local efforts to ensure community input in the park development process. And for critics of privatization efforts, the recent controversy likely provides ammunition for future debates over development in other parks.

Now with the new law on the books, almost all state parks, including Cacapon, could be chosen for private development, raising the question again of whether public lands should be altered for the sake of economic growth.

Reach Ellie Heffernan and P.R. Lockhart at [email protected] and [email protected]