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'Birthplace of Rivers'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A plan to create West Virginia's first national monument from land encompassing the headwaters of six streams in the Monongahela National Forest is drawing support from certain forest users and forest-based businesses and at least one nearby community.

Tentative plans call for including about 123,000 acres in and around the Cranberry Wilderness in the proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. The land, which would continue to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service, includes the headwaters of the Cranberry, Williams, Cherry, Greenbrier, Gauley and Elk rivers.

The proposed national monument would also include the Cranberry Wilderness, the nearby Falls of Hills Creek scenic area, the Cranberry Backcountry, Tea Creek Backcountry, Turkey Mountain Backcountry, Highland Scenic Highway and the Mill Point federal prison site.

Unlike a federal wilderness designation -- which, among other things, prohibits the use of motor vehicles and bicycles -- national monument status would not significantly change the way the land is being managed.

"It takes an area that we think is managed well and keeps it that way in perpetuity," said Phil Smith, chairman of the West Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited. "It allows more flexibility than a wilderness designation does. As a national monument, we can still have things like stream habitat restoration projects," which wouldn't be possible in a wilderness area.

All wilderness restrictions would continue to apply to the 48,000-acre Cranberry Wilderness, if it is included in the national monument as planned. But current management prescriptions, "which generally favor resource preservation and backcountry recreation," would remain in effect in the remaining 75,000 or so acres of nonwilderness land now envisioned for the national monument, according to Mike Costello, director of the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition.

"We want things like wildlife management and red spruce forest restoration to continue in the national monument," said Costello, including limited timbering to expedite management goals.

Forest users such as mountain bikers, who are prohibited from riding in wilderness areas, and trout anglers, whose streams cannot be accessed by stocking and liming trucks in wilderness areas, would have no reason to feel left out in planning for a new national monument, Costello said.

Current plans call for not allowing oil and gas development on lands with federally owned mineral rights within the proposed monument.

Both the West Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited and the International Mountain Bicycling Association support plans to create the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument, providing that the continued ability to hunt and fish and ride mountain bikes in the monument is spelled out in enabling documents.

National monument status solidifies current management policies by making them exempt from future administrative changes. National monuments are created either by congressional action or presidential proclamation.

If Birthplace of Rivers National Monument becomes a reality, according to Costello, all current recreational activities now allowed would remain open in the future, and fish and wildlife management would remain under the jurisdiction of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

There are 108 national monuments in the United States, ranging from the tiny Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York Harbor to the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. The National Park Service manages 79 of the monuments, while the Bureau of Land Management is in charge of 19, and the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service each manage seven.

Birthplace of Rivers would be the first national monument in the East to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

"Nothing in this proposal is set in stone," said Smith. "We're asking the public for support in continuing the planning process and defining what the boundaries will be."

National monument status, Smith said, would "highlight the region's natural heritage and historic value," and increase interest in visiting the area.

"The area already has trails, campgrounds and visitor centers," Costello said, so no significant outlay of new money would be needed to accommodate national monument users. "It will bring sustainable economic benefits to the area."

Costello said one of the biggest challenges facing those who want to make Birthplace of Rivers National Monument a reality is simply "getting folks to come to the table and be open to a new idea."

Since there is no single template for creating a national monument or a plan for running it, "we have the power to define what it should be," he said. "If enough people come to the table, we can come up with a proposal that works for everyone."

There are a number of misconceptions about what national monument status would mean for the area, Costello said. Among things a national monument designation would not do, he said, is affect private landowners, since the land in question is already a part of the Monongahela National Forest. Hunting, fishing, berry picking and similar activities now taking place on the forest would continue in the proposed national monument.

"Overall, every monument designation is unique and reflects the needs and opportunities of that particular situation," U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell wrote in a letter sent earlier this year to address questions raised by the Pocahontas County Commission. "Monument designations typically complement the underlying forest management plan, which is developed with public input. Regarding your questions on various management activities -- hunting, fishing, trout stocking, camping, vegetative management treatments, etc. -- what is permitted under the current forest plan would typically continue as a national monument."

National monument status would "not automatically lead to new fees" for campgrounds or other amenities, Tidwell continued, and would not affect federal payments in lieu of property taxes now made to counties in the Monongahela National Forest through the Secure Rural Schools Act.

Lewisburg City Council and the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau have signed on in support of continuing the planning process for the monument. Support will be sought from other city, county and regional organizations in the area, Costello and Smith said.

For more information on the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument proposal, visit www.birthplaceofrivers.org.

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


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