The Clinch River might become the site of Southwest Virginia’s newest state park
By Debra McCown / Bristol Herald Courier / Published April 7, 2012
A group called the Clinch River Valley Initiative, which grew out of an economic development summit more than a year ago, is piecing together the funding for studies on the cost and economic benefits of creating a state park along the river.
The area to be studied is a long stretch of the river running from the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve in Russell County to Speers Ferry in Scott County, said Steve Linderman, land protection program manager for the Nature Conservancy.
“We don’t know exactly where it’s going to be at this point,” he said of the proposed state park, which could span three counties: Russell, Wise and Scott. The hope, Linderman said, is to be looking at the kind of economic impact brought to the region by Hungry Mother State Park, which he said has an $8 million impact annually. Fully developed, he said, the park would have a visitors center, campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, fishing opportunities and, of course, places to launch canoes and kayaks.
Kitty Barker, of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, said the re-use of old buildings for river recreation outfitters could help to drive community revitalization, as services and lodging establishments are developed to serve park visitors.
“There’s a lot of places for sale and for rent that are perfect places for outfitters,” she said. “They’re right on the river.”
The discussion, including the idea of set paddling routes for visitors, touches on the living example that exists in nearby Washington County: the Virginia Creeper Trail. The trail – specifically the concept of shuttling tourists and their bicycles to the top of the mountain – has been credited with reviving the old logging town of Damascus, which appeared nearly empty little more than a decade ago. Now more than half a dozen bicycle shops and outfitters line the main street through the town of about 1,000, where it can sometimes be hard to find a parking spot.
The hope of the Clinch River Valley Initiative is to bring the counties and towns along the river on board with a plan to inject a shot of development into the coalfields that would tie in with Southwest Virginia’s broader regional marketing effort.
Todd Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, is involved in the effort. His agency oversees Heartwood, the regional tourism gateway and artisan center that opened in Abingdon last year.
Christensen said the state park effort is “a broad consortium” of stakeholders that includes other state agencies, two planning districts and UVA-Wise.
While the river has been studied in the past, he said, the difference this time is the scope: No one has taken such a broad look at the Clinch River’s potential for development into a state park.
Brad Kreps, executive director of the Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program, said he also sees a state park as a venue to accomplish another goal: education. When people – local residents as well as tourists – come to the park, he said, he hopes they will learn about the unique biological resource that exists in the diversity of freshwater mussels that inhabit the river.
The Clinch is known among researchers as a hotspot for the tiny creatures, and they’ve invested decades of effort in restoring native populations after two accidental chemical spills devastated its aquatic life. To conservationists, creation of a state park along the river also would serve as a means to help protect its unique biodiversity.
Those involved in the project readily admit the timeline will be measured in years. Their first goal is to build support for the project while studying its potential cost and benefits. Then, supporters would be able to make a pitch to the Virginia General Assembly to create it and, eventually, fund development.