National Parks Are Not Always Good Neighbors : Environment: They entertain millions of tourists each year, but officials admit they also can disrupt life of people who live in the area.
James (Sleepy) Nutter grew up in a small West Virginia coal town on the New River and fondly remembers when he could disappear for days with little more than a fishing pole and a sleeping bag.
Now Nutter, 59, grouses that the federal government took his river away and made it a park.
The area, he says, has been smothered by restrictions and overrun by so many visitors that passing cars constantly kick up dust onto his trailer home in Cunard, W.Va., about 50 miles southeast of Charleston.
“The National Park Service is supposed to preserve and protect the area,” Nutter said. “We need someone to protect us from them.”
Since the New River Gorge became a national scenic river in 1978, trees can no longer be cut for firewood, berries or wild onions cannot be picked and small insects cannot be used for fish bait.
Last year, Nutter gave up fishing.
Although more than 350 national parks entertain millions of tourists each year, they also can disrupt or destroy their neighbors’ lifestyles through tough rules or aggressive land purchases, says Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Assn. in Battle Ground, Wash.
The group represents landowners whose property borders national parks.
“The Park Service is such a bullying, heavy-handed, insensitive agency that it just doesn’t get along with local communities,” Cushman said.
National park officials acknowledge they’re not always welcome.
“Land issues are always some of the ones that get parks into problems,” said Henry Law, assistant superintendent at the New River Gorge National River.
“We try to work with people face to face and bring the ethics that come with the job. I think a lot of people look at us as a good thing economically. There are a few people who would like things the way they used to be, but they’re few and far between.”
Law and other park officials say they are careful to avoid the mistakes made by their predecessors, which in some cases brought decades of animosity.
“There’s still resentment here and we’re getting into the second generation,” said Bob Miller, spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which includes 520,000 acres in Tennessee and North Carolina.
The park was formed in the late 1920s and 1930s when the government acquired about 6,600 private tracts of land. Miller says many landowners were coaxed into selling at low prices and about one-third of the landowners were forced to sell through condemnation. “We’ll catch poachers who say they’re hunting because we took their grandfather’s land,” he said.
Less than 5% of acquisitions are through condemnation today, said Sondra Humphries, a regional chief of the park service’s Land Resources Division. Instead, most land comes from “willing” sellers.
“Only if it’s critical to the route of a trail or the mission of a park do we follow through on condemnation,” Humphries said.
But a study for Cushman’s group of more than 400 Park Service acquisitions in 1992 concluded that many landowners were pressured into selling.
“In at least one-third of the cases, there was the open threat or potential threat of condemnation,” said the study’s author, Bo Thott of Culver, Me., a retiree whose Atlantic Coast town was briefly targeted by the park service.
“The sellers are as willing as robbery victims handing over their wallets when under the gun,” Thott said.
Humphries found Thott’s conclusions hard to believe.
“We never walk in and say, ‘Here’s the offer. Take it or leave it. If not, we’re going to condemn.’ That is a no-no,” she said.
State parks also have been troubled by condemnations, but generally have fewer conflicts with their neighbors, said Ken Caplinger, deputy chief of the West Virginia parks and recreation office.
“There is a big difference between state and federal parks,” Caplinger said. “Response to public sentiment is much greater at the state parks than at the federal level. State government is smaller, and by nature more responsive to its citizens.”
Landowners aren’t the only people affected by national parks. While boosting the neighboring economy, visitors also strain public services, including police and roads, and damage popular recreational sites.
“The park has its own agenda. They don’t work with the local community any more than they have to,” said Joanna Waugh of Chesterton, Ind., spokeswoman for Stop Taking Our Property, which opposes expansion of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
The recreational oasis along Lake Michigan, just one hour from Chicago, has expanded with congressional approval three times since it was founded in 1966.
Assistant Supt. Bill Supernaugh says the National Park Service tries to work with officials from the surrounding towns and, for example, has provided money to help maintain roads.
“The biggest continuing problem is (that) the lake shore was set up in an essentially developed area,” Supernaugh said.
The park has absorbed more than 700 homes, which are slated for destruction after their owners leave or die.
“The idea was to coexist with the community, not to obliterate it,” Waugh said. “They are rewriting history, deciding what’s important for visitors and ignoring local history important to residents.”
At the New River, hundreds of thousands of tourists use the trails, campsites and visitor center. A private white-water rafting industry also has developed, attracting more than 100,000 people a year.
A new development plan announced by the park in September encourages even more visitors by improving sightseeing and picnic areas. Park officials say the plan is only an unfunded “wish list,” but that’s no comfort to Nutter.
“I’ll just have to keep looking out there at that cloud of dust,” he said.