Op Ed: WVDA Essential to WV Tourism

From the declaration of the New River Gorge National Park to renovating the state parks in West Virginia, over the last five years our tourism industry has received a tremendous amount of attention and support. That support has brought dividends as we have seen tourism revenue increase by upwards of 50 percent, generating $4.5 billion for the state’s economy. Given the national attention, increased travel and investments the state has made, now more than ever it’s vital we continue to retain West Virginia’s natural beauty. The agency that is on the front line, protecting our forests, is one that might surprise you. It is time to recognize and support the efforts of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture in preserving the state’s natural resources and attractions. Without our agency’s efforts, our tourism industry would not be where it is today.

As Commissioner of Agriculture, I chair the State Conservation Committee which guides the West Virginia Conservation Agency promoting healthy soil and clean water. The agency supports the locally elected Conservation District Supervisors and 170 flood control dams under the Conservation Districts jurisdictions. These dams often provide recreational opportunities and water reserves while protecting life and property. The Conservation Agency also works with the WVDA to promote good agricultural practices through voluntary efforts with our farmers. It’s these efforts that continue to preserve water basins, like the Chesapeake Bay, for generations to come.

With most of our state covered in valuable hardwoods, our beautiful, tree-covered mountains are one of our state’s greatest assets. From timbering to campers, bird watchers and hikers, a lot of revenue is generated by our natural beauty. To preserve this asset, it takes a lot of manpower to monitor and treat our forest health. In the New River Gorge National Park, we continue to protect oak trees from Gypsy Moth. A new invasive pest, the Spotted Lanternfly, threatens our specialty grape and wine industry. Water sports, including fishing and rafting, require clean water, as well as black fly management. If you have visited Blackwater Falls or Cathedral State Parks, it was the WVDA that saved the hemlock trees that contribute to the natural scenery. All these programs are managed by the WVDA.

One of the fastest growing sectors of tourism is agritourism. To fully tap into this new market, we have devoted a full-time staff member and have worked to pass legislation to recognize and help the industry grow. Our staffer is dedicated to helping our pick-your-own farms, Christmas tree farms, corn mazes and wedding barns. We have also worked to support farm-to-table dinners including partnering with West Virginia state parks to host these types of dinners around the state. These types of events not only provide tourism opportunities but expand markets for our local farmers. All these venues and events play a part in growing our tourism industry and bringing increased revenue to the state.

I commend Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby and her tourism team on their efforts. They have done a tremendous job with the funding they have been given to make the Mountain State a tourism destination. As we continue to promote the state, we must match the investment we have made in tourism in the programs that protect its beauty. The WVDA is more than just farms, we touch tourism and the lives of every West Virginian every day. We are crucial in the promotion and protection of our tourism industry. If you have ever hiked, enjoyed time on the water or visited one of our many state parks, you can thank the WVDA and its partners for protecting our natural beauty.

Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects plant, animal and human health through a variety of scientific, regulatory and consumer protection programs. The Commissioner of Agriculture is one of six statewide elected officials who sits on the Board of Public Works.