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Building a National Heritage Area plan

The Forest Festival usually dominates Elkins conversations during the first weekend of October; however, everything is different in 2020. The Coronavirus forces us to avoid person-to-person chatting. If we want to talk, we need to go online, and that forces us to contemplate the reasons for things we are saying. This week I joined a zoom meeting to help develop a plan for the interpretation of visitor experiences in the Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area [AFNHA].

This meeting reminded me of the things that were considered during the early meetings when Elkins leaders began planning for the Forest Festival. They also wanted to increase tourism by highlighting the timeless beauty of the ancient Appalachian forest. The Great Depression hit our area before it came to other parts of the nation. The railroad and lumber business had built a boom town in Elkins, but that rapid growth did not last long. By 1929 the building euphoria was over, and towns like ours were scrambling to find ways to attract attention and rebuild the local economy. Everybody had fairs and festivals, but the Forest Festival was the biggest WV fall event.

Planners are still working with the same basic assets now, but in the 1930’s planners did not look at the bigger picture. If we want to attract sustainable tourism, we need to do it all year long throughout the highland region. In 2020 we need to recognize that people who visit our beautiful mountains can benefit businesses in all the towns of the Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area (AFNHA) with 18 highland counties in WV and 2 in MD.

The AFNHA inventory of assets includes new opportunities for better regional interpretation. Modern eco-tourism is helping many third-world countries focus attention on their local plants and animals. Here we have the oldest mountains in the world dating back some 200 million years to Pangea where all the continents floated together in one large mass. This geological history gives our forests the greatest botanical variety in the world with many “living fossil” plants that attract fantastic migrating birds and butterflies. Our winters are changing, but these mountains still offer snow sport experiences that are rare in the eastern United States.

Artifacts from Appalachian culture offer traditional information from at least three distinct racial groups. Native Americans, who lived here before Europeans came to this continent, left their melodious names and stories in these mountains, but much of their information remains unknown. African American slaves, who escaped tobacco fields in Virginia or broke free on their way to be “sold down the river,” made their flavorful foods and rhythmic songs to deepen our understanding of history.

Finally, when Europeans claimed these mountains, they brought their various national customs for cooking, sewing, and music making along with their written concept of law and order.

Time will tell if a newer interpretation will attract more tourist in the new millennium.

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