MORGAN COUNTY, W.VA. — On a typical day in West Virginia’s Cacapon Resort State Park, you might see locals fishing with their grandkids, hosting a monthly burger night or even attending a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You might see visitors from the Baltimore-D.C. metro area, about a hundred miles to the east, bird watching, picnicking and catching a little respite from busy lives in the city. With more than 6,000 acres of greenery and a vista that overlooks four states at once, Cacapon is one of the largest state parks in this eastern corner of West Virginia.
But this spring, you might have encountered a crowd of angry West Virginians gathered to protest the state’s plan to let a company pave part of their beloved park into a privately run RV campground.
In December 2022, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources had invited private companies to submit proposals to build campgrounds and recreational facilities in the park. The agency says the move was “continuing on the path of growth and sustainability” by helping the state park system become increasingly able to pay for itself. Opponents, however, say the proposals (one of which included mini-golf and fake snow for tubing) would irreversibly change Cacapon’s character by creating a hectic, carnival-like atmosphere. And in a state long dominated by the coal and natural gas industries, it sounded like a new version of an old story: out-of-state corporations extracting wealth from their state’s natural resources.
This kind of development was not possible until 2022, after the legislature passed a law to allow private development in nearly every West Virginia state park. The law, and the Cacapon RV park proposal, are part of a larger national trend: From the doomed sale of Oklahoma’s Lake Texoma State Park to the Trump and Biden administrations leasing millions of acres of public land to oil and gas companies, state and federal officials are increasingly turning public lands over to private profits.
Here in West Virginia, though, the attempt at private development hit a wall of community resistance. “I think the state officials sort of thought they would catch the community napping,” says journalist Russell Mokhiber, who opposed the proposed development. Instead, the state was met with a petition urging the state to withdraw its request for development proposals — signed by over 1,000 people, more than the population of the nearest town — and crowds of protesters who gathered weekly in Cacapon.
The public outcry was so intense that, in April, the state decided to scrap the plan — for now.
Multiple companies had submitted proposals, but residents were particularly worried about one put forth by a company called Blue Water Development, which had called for paving concrete lots for 350 RVs, cutting down trees and possibly draining a wetland to put in water slides, a miniature golf course and a beach. Besides destroying habitat and the park’s peaceful character, these measures could increase runoff— already a concern in a community where flooding along the Cacapon River five years ago forced some to evacuate their homes.
Community members were also frustrated by the state’s lack of transparency. Back in April, a resident filed a lawsuit to argue the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources did not properly notify the public about a hearing regarding development proposals. The hearing was canceled shortly after as the state announced it would not move forward with any of the submitted proposals and would seek further public input.
Around the same time, Mokhiber, editor of local publication Morgan County USA, wrote about public records that showed state officials had been talking with Blue Water Development well before the December 2022 request for proposals. In fact, in September 2021 — before the new private development law had even passed — a company doing work for Blue Water emailed a draft concept for an RV park at Cacapon to the then-head of the state Division of Natural Resources.
Critics now view the law and the development process at Cacapon as shaped by the desires of private industry, rather than the people of West Virginia.
“The only reason this makes sense is if you want to make it a profit center,” Mokhiber argues.
Neither Blue Water nor the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources responded to requests for comment.
Though Cacapon has, at least temporarily, avoided privatization, several community members say they are still apprehensive and are interested in the law’s repeal. “I feel like it’s a detente more than a victory,” says Steve Hay, an engineer who bought his current home largely because of its proximity to the park. “Even though we’re the first, it’s certainly not the last time this could happen.”
Sure enough, just a few weeks later, West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice announced the creation of a new state park at Summersville Lake, a popular swimming and boating spot in southern West Virginia. The spot already has hiking and biking trails, according to a newly created park webpage, but the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources says it has plans for much more — including aerial sports, cabins and climbing education programs — “slated to be developed through an innovative public-private partnership.”
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ELLIE HEFFERNAN is a freelance writer based in West Virginia.