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New Thinking, New Design for Newest Virginia State Park

Tennessee Valley Stories
'Blueway' trail along Clinch River in Southwest Virginia conceived as a confluence of conservation and commerce

The dawning of spring this year didn’t bring with it a typical sense of promise and resurgence.

But while COVID-19 has darkened the tourism economy’s skies in the shorter term, there’s still a spirit of optimism and hope for the visitor-services sector’s future in communities along the Clinch River in Southwest Virginia.

No stranger to rough economic waters, the once thriving communities throughout the region have been fighting job loss and out-migration the past few decades as the once mighty coal and lumber industries have dwindled to shadows of their former selves.

But the Heart of Appalachia region is also home to vast beauty that fosters a stubborn optimism, proud independence and pragmatic adaptability of a sort that living amongst rugged mountains and winding, woods-enveloped rivers can singularly inspire.

Gliding through the heart of the remote Virginia environs known as the Heart of Appalachia is one extraordinary river special even for a realm of the country overflowing with special places.

The Clinch River rises in Tazewell County and flows for more than 130 miles along a southwesterly course past Russell, Wise, and Scott counties before crossing into Tennessee en route to Norris Lake. It's widely considered the most biologically diverse river in North America, and one of the richest habitats for freshwater mussels on the planet.

“The Clinch is the greatest river in the U.S. that nobody’s ever heard of,” Brad Kreps of the Nature Conservancy in Virginia is fond of saying. And as such, his group has made it a priority to preserve that which makes the Clinch unique -- and likewise encourage others to discover it for themselves in hopes that they too will support and join that conservation mission.

Over the years, the Nature Conservancy has also come to embrace the realization that if good-stewardship efforts are going to prove sustainable over the long run, plans for protecting waters and landscapes that provide vital fish and wildlife habitat must additionally include viable strategies for economically benefiting the human inhabitants with direct ties to the natural resource.

Raising awareness about the importance of a resource is best achieved by encouraging people to use it responsibly themselves, the Nature Conservancy's staff and volunteers believe. And responsible uses should benefit the people of a particular region by helping provide them community-building, self-esteem-enhancing ways of earning dependable livelihoods.

Conservation and economic development really can go hand in hand, and many have come to believe the Clinch River Valley can serve as a model for the future that shows other regions what economically renewable conservation success can look like.

Shellfish Sanctuary

The idea for developing a state park along the Clinch River goes back at least to the 1980s, when biologists began determining the river was a biodiversity “hotspot” of extraordinary magnitude, containing one of the highest concentrations of rare mussel species in the world.

A study on native mollusks and aquatic invertebrates in the river system conducted for the U.S. Geological Survey described the Clinch as “arguably the most important river for freshwater mussel conservation in the United States.”

“Mussels are important because they are bioindicators of water quality,” said Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist Mike Pinder. “Some mussels can live up to 80 or 100 years old. So, you know when you have a stream with a healthy mussel population that you have good water quality in that stream or river for a very long time.”

Mussels are themselves “natural water cleaners, they are purifiers” he said. “They can filter between a half gallon and one and a half gallons per hour. When you have a good mussel bed, they are contributing significantly to the clean water in that system."

The Nature Conservancy determined early on that protecting mussels in the Clinch River meant maintaining good water quality and ensuring beneficial river habitat, which led to a “comprehensive vision for conservation that involved people and all the different land uses affecting the health of the river.”

Blueprint for a ‘Blueway’

Clinch River State Park won’t be a typical park consisting of a single public-land parcel where visitors descend on a centralized location and fan out from there.

Instead, a “string of pearls” design concept is being pursued. Over the span of what is ultimately planned to be about 100 miles, the state, with the assistance of the Nature Conservancy, is acquiring properties of various sizes to serve as public entry and exit points to the river -- thus encourage river-users to spread out and explore.

The configuration of the park will not only serve to facilitate and promote multi-day float trips, but it will hopefully enable small communities in the four-county park zone to reap benefits from the expected increase in recreation-focused tourism to the region.

The “blueway” concept is a water trail with seperate launch points, camping locations and various points of interest along the way for canoeists, kayakers, fishermen and wildlife-watchers.

At least three larger “anchor properties” of 250 acres or more will in the future provide some of the traditional infrastructure like a campgrounds and a visitor center.

A similarly conceived park already exists in northwestern North Carolina -- the New River State Park. Like the Clinch, it too offers easy paddling for inexperienced paddlers. And also like the Clinch, “even expert paddlers return again and again to experience the river's beauty and tranquility,” according to the NRSP website.

Another kindred public recreation design is set to open soon along the Elk River in West Virginia, where officials hope a new blueway system will draw visitors to an area that -- again, like the Clinch Valley -- the state’s leading destination-focused magazine says “lags behind other areas in tourism development despite its scenic beauty, recreational potential” and high-quality road access.

“Everybody always agreed that Clinch River State Park was a good idea, but for a long time they had trouble getting the appropriations to make it actually happen,” said Steve Lindeman, the Nature Conservancy’s land-protection manager for the region.

Lindeman noted that groups like the Clinch River Valley Initiative have been advocating on behalf of regional conservation and economic development for more than a decade, and appreciation of the river's ecological significance and recreational potential goes back much further. But it wasn’t until 2016 that Virginia’s General Assembly allocated about $5 million for the park and officially set in motion the project.

As of now, said Lindeman, the park is “in pretty good shape -- it definitely is real at this point; the Clinch River State Park now exists.”

The park is now open now, although full infrastructure development is a ways down the line. Another $40-60 million will likely be required for a full build-out. There are no state-owned overnight campgrounds, although the Town of Cleveland operates “a peaceful and beautiful campground on the renowned Clinch River” that offers amenities for camper sites including electric, water, and access to an onsite dump station.

The main site for land-based Clinch River State Park activity is a formerly private recreation spot now managed by the commonwealth. Sugar Hill features a “well-maintained hiking and biking trail (that) extends nearly 8 miles.”

Scott Bowen, who was hired last year as Clinch River State Park’s first manager, is a 20-year veteran of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s park system, having also worked at Claytor Lake, Hungry Mother and Wilderness Road.

Getting in on the ground-floor of a state park represents a highlight of his career, he said. Past rangers that Bowen said he’s worked with -- who themselves had at one time or another been assigned to start-up parks -- said it’s an exciting and rewarding experience that shouldn’t be missed. “They said if you ever get the chance to be part of the building of a state park, then you should take that opportunity,” Bowen said, adding that it is especially exciting being part of establishing the first blueway state park in Virginia.

Good Ol’ Days Still Ahead

A 2012 analysis of the potential boosts that a new park along the Clinch River might offer local economies projected it would attract more than 100,000 visitors annually once fully operational -- with an expectation that visitation would grow by more than one and a half percent a year “as the park becomes more familiar.”

“Similar to other outdoor destinations in Virginia, about 18 percent of park visitors will be non-locals, coming to visit the park either for a day trip or an overnight stay,” the study, conducted by the Richmond-based firm Chmura Economics and Analytics, concluded.

In addition to providing greater access to the Clinch River and potentially drawing more than seven million dollars a year in tourist revenue into the region, the study found that a state park would “bring other benefits that cannot easily be measured,” like greater appreciation for environmental conservation and promoting outdoor physical activity that in turn encourages overall healthier lifestyle.

The Clinch River Valley is like many regions that have “traditionally relied upon agriculture, natural resources, or manufacturing” and appears particularly suited to “successfully utilize recreation as an economic development strategy,” the analysis observed.

Thirty-year-old Maddie Gordon, who owns and operates Clinch Life Outfitters, is a prime example of someone with deep roots in the Clinch Valley who is enthusiastic about capitalizing on a recreation-based future.

Gordon said she grew up on the river fishing and frolicking at her grandfather’s side. When she started her downtown St Paul-based business in 2016 -- the year after his passing -- she had in mind doing something to honor his memory. Her heartfelt entrepreneurial purpose now is to introduce others to the river’s beauty, tranquility and rejuvenating spirit so that they can experience its power to spawn fond, lifelong reminiscences for themselves.

“I just wanted to do something to encourage people to get outdoors and be with their families, as my grandfather always did with us,” she said. “My best memories are being out on the Clinch River fishing and floating with him, and having picnics. That’s where we would always go for birthdays and holidays and things. The river has always had a special place in my heart because of that.”

Demand Up for Out-of-the-Way Places

Sharon Buchanan, who oversees state parks in Southwest Virginia for the commonwealth’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, calls the Clinch River “an undiscovered gem” -- although “more and more people are discovering it every day,” she added.

That’s a trend in keeping with the region as a whole, she said.

“Virginia state parks see more than seven million visitors a year -- and around a million-and-a-half of those visitors come to the parks in Southwest Virginia, which are some of our most popular parks,” said Buchanan. “So we get a lot of visitors and we have a lot of positive impact on the economics of the communities that the parks are in. We certainly expect that Clinch River will also be a part of that.”

Buchanan said the park will also fit in with the “overall bigger picture” of ongoing efforts to revitalize communities in the region.

Buchanan noted that even though Clinch River will be the first blueway park, there is already a rails-to-trails park spanning Carol, Wythe, Grayson and Pulaski - and that business opportunities related to outdoor adventure have proven profitable.

New River Trails State Park has certainly had an economic impact on all the communities up and down that trail,” she said. “You will see that same kind of thing at Clinch River State park that you saw at New River -- all kinds of things like private campgrounds and cabins and outfitters on the river that use the park as a launch points for their business.”

Buchanan predicts that “as businesses expand, they will hire more workers, and these workers will in turn spend more money in the region on goods and services such as restaurants, hospitals, and retail stores,” she said.

“There are just a lot of exciting things going on around the Clinch -- and this is just going to be great for Southwest Virginia,” she said. “The challenge going forward will be to maintain that beauty and share it with the world -- but also maintain all the things that make our region unique and make people want to come here. We really want to keep in mind how we do recreation sustainably so that we are building for the future, and leaving things for future generations to enjoy.”