A newly formed citizens group is helping lead the charge to make Natural Bridge a state or national park. This week group members met with the broker selling the landmark as well as state leaders -- and say they're optimistic they'll achieve their goal.
When the current owner of Natural Bridge announced he was selling the property, the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council and Valley Conservation Council got together to discuss what they could do to help make the push for park status. They quickly learned many other groups and individuals wanted to get involved -- so they all joined forces and formed the Natural Bridge Coalition.
"The opportunity is now here to see it return as a public park," said Lee Merrill, Co-President of the RACC and a member of the Natural Bridge Coalition.
Merrill says state or national park status would not only help with conservation efforts, but presents Rockbridge County with a significant economic opportunity.
"The increased visitation that would occur under that kind of ownership could be quite significant," said Merrill. "That evaluation is underway now in a National Park Service study and the state government is actively looking at that question. And as a park, it would also be a way that people might decide to visit Rockbridge County and stay here for a day or two."
The coalition believes the most realistic path to park status would be for a private citizen or group to purchase the property when it goes up for auction in November, then donate it to either the National Park Service or the Virginia State Parks system. Group members are actively searching for people with the means to make that happen.
"As a group, we're reaching out to people we know," said Merrill. "We also hope [WSLS 10] viewers will say I know a person who might want to know about this project."
The coalition says its other major role in this process will be to raise awareness about the mission and encourage people and organizations to get behind it.
Earlier this week, Merrill attended a meeting with Jim Woltz, the broker selling the property, and several high ranking state officials including Secretary of Natural Resources Doug Domenech, Director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation David Johnson, and Virginia State Parks Director Joe Elton. Representatives from the offices of Congressman Bob Goodlatte, Senator Mark Warner, and Senator Tim Kaine were also present.
Merrill says because this is still a fluid situation, he didn't want to go into great detail about what was said, but that he felt "encouraged" walking out of those discussions.
"Not only am I encouraged, I'm amazed at how quickly these rather large institutions have actually taken their attention here," said Merrill. "Their staffs have been all over the facility and people are looking at it and evaluating it. The timeline is the greatest challenge."
When asked if he thinks Natural Bridge will ultimately become a state or national park, he gave a definitive yes.
"When I began, I had some hesitations to say yes to that degree," said Merrill. "I thought it was worth trying. The pieces do seem to be falling into place. We don't know yet how they fit together, but there's so much interest from such a diverse number of organizations that I'm very encouraged this will come to fruition."
In an email to WSLS 10, a spokesperson for the Department of Conservation and Recreation said "the state would like to see the bridge and the adjacent undeveloped land protected" but that it was too early to say what would be the best way to see that happen.
Woltz has also met with representatives from the National Park Service. The agency is getting ready to conduct a study to see how feasible it would be to add Natural Bridge to its system. NPS spokesperson Mike Litterst tells WSLS 10 the study will begin later this month.
"The length of time for any survey project is dependent on the complexity of the site and available staff resources, so it's too soon to project when it will be completed," he wrote in an email.