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Mon Forest grows by 415 acres

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 400 acres of red spruce and northern hardwood forest bordering the Roaring Plains West Wilderness Area have been added to the Monongahela National Forest through agreements announced Friday.

The property, located on a slope of Mount Porte Crayon at elevations reaching 4,600 feet, was once owned by Mead-Westvaco, and was later acquired by The Nature Conservancy from its most recent owner, Thunderstruck Conservation LLC.

The U.S. Forest Service is using money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, comprised mainly of fees charged to offshore oil and gas drillers, to buy 300 acres of the tract. The remaining 115 acres will be bought through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel Conservation Fund.

The new Monongahela National Forest tract includes habitat for the endangered West Virginia northern flying squirrel and the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander, which is known to live on the site.

The land transfer announced Friday nearly culminates a 10-year Nature Conservancy project aimed at protecting nearly 2,000 acres of former timber company land adjacent to the Roaring Plans and Dolly Sods wilderness areas.

Plans call for a final 176-acre tract remaining in Nature Conservancy ownership to also be transferred to the Monongahela National Forest as funds become available.

"Protecting more than 400 acres of high elevation is important in its own right, but completing the entire project will be a significant conservation achievement for everyone who values West Virginia's wild places," said Rodney Bartgis, state director for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.

"This area will be a wonderful addition to the National Forest system," said Monongahela National Forest Supervisor Clyde Thompson. "Connecting high-elevation habitats and providing additional land available to the public is a winning combination, and we've been extremely fortunate to have The Nature Conservancy as a partner to make this a reality."

In 2011, The Nature Conservancy helped the Forest Service buy 1,100 acres of the former timber company tract. In 2008, the conservancy acquired a conservation easement from Thunderstruck to protect 275 acres of adjacent land that included several ecologically significant caves, including one containing the fossilized skulls and skeletons of an elk and a bison. Both species have been extinct in West Virginia since the 1800s.

"This protects the whole upper watershed of Little Spruce Run," a native brook trout stream that eventually flows into the Dry Fork River, said Keith Fisher, director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.

Endangered Virginia big-eared bats live in the caves and sinkholes found on the property. Globally rare white monkshood can be found growing in the tract's spring seeps, and the endangered running buffalo clover grows on the property's mountain slopes.

The new tract can be reached by hiking through the Roaring Plains West Wilderness Area, and via a Forest Service road extending off Kisamore Cemetery Road, off W.Va. 32.

A transfer ceremony was held on the property Friday morning.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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