Traversing the green and rolling terrain of the ancient Allegheny Mountains is reminiscent of riding giant ocean swells. Cresting up and over each successive ridgeline rewards the traveler with a sweeping view of a lush, river-worn valley below and the vista of the next sloping flank to come. More valleys lay beyond, highlands rising and falling in an even, steady flow, marching on into the misty distance.
Until, suddenly, breaking that gentle rhythm, the pale and broken parapet of the “Rocks” juts up through the tree line like the bleached bones of a dragon. With my family, I’ve been through many a Mid-Atlantic dale and hollow, but the journey to Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area on the Monongahela National Forest took us into an area of West Virginia we hadn’t yet explored. Despite being only three hours west of Washington, D.C., the verdant landscape felt much more remote.
Subtle clues hint at your presence in a different kind of “park.”
Instead of the arrowhead emblem of the National Park Service, signs are emblazoned with the tree-adorned shield of the Forest Service. A small crossroads hosts a motel, country store and outfitter that enjoy brisk business. Our campground, well-appointed with leveled tent pads and tidy fire pits, is managed by a contractor—though so seamlessly, it’s hard to tell.
When we arrived at our campsite in the middle of an impossibly bright September afternoon, the glowing full-face panorama of the Seneca Rocks crags commanded our rapt attention. A group of campers from the D.C. area had brought a telescope for nighttime stargazing, but in the meantime, pointed it at the precipice, watching helmeted climbers rappel and ascend the rocks.
Congress Responds to Recreational Demand
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Congress heatedly debated the merits of establishing Wilderness Areas on public lands. As part of the process leading up to 1964’s Wilderness Act, the federal Outdoor Recreation Resource Review Commission identified a rapidly increasing urban demand for outdoor recreational opportunities.
In response, a 1962 presidential advisory council developed a set of criteria to allow for the designation of specially managed natural areas intended primarily for recreational use. Seneca Rocks, established in 1965, was the first of what is now a system of 22 Forest Service-managed NRAs (the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management manage additional NRAs as well). Following a rush of set-asides through the 1980s and ‘90s, the Mount Hood NRA was designated in 2009 and remains the most recent NRA. Along with specially designated scenic areas, trails, rivers, or volcanic areas, a National Recreation Area designation requires an act of Congress.
As Diverse as the Continent’s Geography
These recreation areas differ from other federal land designations primarily in their intended use: while management of National Parks is focused on preservation and conservation, and National Forests are managed for multiple resources, recreation is emphasized in NRAs. In these areas, hiking, camping, biking, climbing, fishing, swimming, snowmobiling and any other number of interests are not only sanctioned but actively encouraged, though the specific mix of activities differs from place to place.
The recreation areas are as diverse as the continent’s geography. From the smallest area, the 6,000 acre Pine Ridge NRA in Nebraska, to the vast Sawtooth NRA in Idaho, encompassing an area nearly as large as Rhode Island, NRAs are selected for their unique and exceptional attributes. Those features need not necessarily be forest-related: Hells Canyon NRA, in Oregon’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, contains 15,000-year-old Native American petroglyphs; Arapaho NRA is known as the “great lakes” area of Colorado for its five large reservoirs.
By design, National Recreation Areas are located within easy striking distance of cities.
By design, NRAs are located within easy striking distance from cities. Each NRA is no more than 250 miles from a major population center, and the guidelines regulating creation of these recreation areas also mandate that they should be relatively large, allowing for a high carrying capacity of visitors. Additional preference is given to areas that would economically benefit from
increased local tourism and recreation opportunities. And, of course, the geography should be picturesque, a regionally significant landmark.
“The Forest Service is incredibly proud to manage some of the world’s most treasured public landscapes,” said Joe Meade, director of the Forest Service’s recreation, heritage and volunteer resources. “Each of these iconic NRAs have been recognized by Congress for their exceptional attributes. It is our intention to enhance stewardship and partnership alliances in support of all of these places, to raise public awareness about their value, and to increase staff and budget resources to help protect and ensure their longevity for generations to come.”
“NRAs are generally very popular,” said Forest Service chief landscape architect Matt Arnn, who helps NRA managers retain and improve the essential character of each place. “To be nominated and congressionally designated means there has to be a strong local regional constituency that works in partnership with the Forest Service and related interest groups to pursue that designation. You need a fair amount of support for that.”
Millions of People, Billions of Dollars
Though spending is down slightly from earlier in the 2000s, likely due to decreased spending nationwide during the most recent recession, demand for recreational resources continues to be high.
More than 6 million people are employed in recreation-related industries, more than in finance, construction or transportation. The Outdoor Industry Alliance's 2012 report notes that Americans spent $646 billion on recreation, netting state and federal governments a cool $39 billion in tax revenue—each.
All but one of the group from our telescope-toting neighbors at the Seneca Rocks campground had never been to this particular recreation area before, but all agreed that it was an attractive resource to have in such relative proximity to the Washington suburbs, where they all reside. But other than being aware they were in a National Forest, none of the group realized they were in specially designated area nested within that forest.
“I always knew the difference between national parks and forest areas,” said Garrett Hart, a former Navy pilot who now resides in the D.C. area. “In my head I never really focused on what’s a national recreation area.”
Hart did add that he has always appreciated the wider freedom of activities within National Forests. “It’s more wide open. On a lot of the lands, you can just go in and use it.”
Steve Pezzetti, also part of the group, agreed, noting that he grew up traveling National Forests extensively with his father, who worked for the Forest Service for 46 years. Despite the heavy summertime use from the crowds who visit from the Eastern seaboard, he noted the careful maintenance of the trails. The group of friends expressed pleasant surprise at the range of activities available for visitors.
As we prepared to leave Seneca Rocks, my first-grader piped up from the rear of our vehicle: “Are we going back to the tent now?” My preschooler, ever her brother’s faithful parrot, added, “More tent?” Thus inaugurated, I am cheered that both my children seem eager for more outdoor explorations like what we found in the Monongahela.
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