Spattered along the backsides of southern West Virginia’s Appalachian mountain range exists a bustling, but relatively unknown resort-style industry. ATV tourism has created a massive economic boom in an area that has long been left to abandonment and decay, but will this economic explosion ultimately uplift the forgotten natives who need it most?
In the late 1990s, talks of a sprawling new system of ATV trails rumbled through the southern half of West Virginia. Though these mumblings were initially met with skepticism, the ambitious idea has now evolved into the massively successful Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, which draws thousands of riders, and millions of dollars, to the area every year. However, locals have been left to question, where is all of this money going? Is the cash flow from out-of-state riders really benefitting the local economy? Or does the burgeoning ATV empire hold the potential to mirror the previous dominating industry of the Appalachian area? Mining corporations exploited local workers and lands for the benefit of out-of-state owners for generations. Will the ATV industry leave West Virginians behind once again?
Since opening in October of 2000, the Hatfield-McCoy trail system has grown to span over 800 miles of backcountry terrain. The trail system acts as a massive draw for outdoor enthusiasts both from the area and out-of-state.
In fact, Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, claimed in an interview with WV Public Broadcasting that:
“Hatfield-McCoy is the most successful all-terrain vehicle trail system in the eastern U.S.”Jeffrey Lusk
In 1996, the West Virginia Legislature established the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority with the intention of stimulating the downcast local economy by utilizing the scenic landscape to generate tourism interest. According to available economic estimates, the positive impact of this project is undeniable.
In 2018, the regional recreation authority sold nearly 50,000 permits for trail access, 85% of which were claimed by out-of-state riders. In total, Hatfield-McCoy raked in an estimated $2.3million in trail permits alone in 2018, without factoring in merchandise sales, licensing, and other affiliations.
However, the economic impact of the trail system spans farther than the company’s earnings alone. In a 2019 study conducted by Marshall University researchers, Hatfield-McCoy was estimated to have generated $38 million worth of economic stimulation in southern W.Va. by attracting visitors to the area. According to the same study:
“Non-local survey respondents report spending nearly $530 more during a typical visit than their local counterparts.”Marshall University Researchers
The economic benefits of the trail system are clear. However, the influx of out-of-state riders has garnered distinct detriments for locals.
Linda Lafferty lives in Beartown, W.Va., a seemingly quiet, remote community spiraled around a single mountain in Wyoming County. However, housed at the base of the mountain are two bars and several campgrounds intended for ATV riders.
According to Linda, the presence of riders in her once-peaceful community has caused some major disruptions.
“They fly, you’ll be going up the road and if you’re not going fast enough for them, they just fly around you.”Linda Lafferty
Given the curvy, one-lane mountain roads surrounding her home, the idea of being passed at high speeds is concerning to Mrs. Lafferty.
Linda is also concerned by the lack of safety measures taken by ATV operators traveling through her area, “they get drunk”, she said, “they just about hang off the four-wheeler.”
In addition to the concerning behaviors Mrs. Lafferty observes on the roads, the landscape near her home has been altered and mistreated. “They litter bad,” she said, “and they make hill climbs that cause the water [running off of the mountain side] to wash out the highway.”
In one instance, Linda’s own front yard was defaced. “One went straight up the hill in front of my house,” she said, “[my husband] keeps the yard mowed and pretty and they went straight up through it.”
Despite the danger and property damage Linda faces in her own community, she acknowledges the economic benefits of the ATV industry for southern W.Va. and her own family. “My brother has four trailers that he rents out to riders,” she said, “and my son has done lots of septic installations and contracting work for out-of-staters.”
Though she appreciates the positive impacts on licensed local businesses, Linda suspects that West Virginians aren’t the only ones benefitting from the ATV industry.
“The bad part of it is that you got these people that are coming in and putting in big campgrounds and cabins, when it should be people from West Virginia.”Linda Lafferty
Linda also believes that the state is losing money from unlicensed and untaxed business. “A lot of these places [restaurants, bars, and campgrounds] aren’t operating above the table. They’re taking cash and not paying taxes to the state.”
In her final statement, Linda remains ambivalent about the presence of out-of-state riders in her community. “We’ve met some good people and made really great friends.” Ultimately, though, Linda likes her “peace and quiet” and would “rather things to have stayed the way they were.”
In the case of ATV tourism in southern W.Va., there is no clear determination about the impact on local residents. Because so much of the industry operates unregulated and fails to report earnings, it is impossible to contrast the positive economic benefits for the local economy with the earnings of those who reside out-of-state or do not pay taxes.
How much should locals be asked to sacrifice in the name of tourism and economic growth? Should property damage, alteration to local terrain, and the possibility of bodily harm be accepted as the cost of tourism?
West Virginians have long been exploited for their resources and employment by the coal industry, with little in the way of relative compensation. The ATV industry presents a much-needed opportunity for economic expansion, but without local awareness and careful monitoring, it holds the potential to repeat the cycle of exploitation once again.
by Callie Lamb