Nature Conservancy marks 50 years in West Virginia
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 1960, a group of students and faculty at West Virginia University began getting together to discuss, among other things, taking on a conservation project in neighboring Preston County.
"A group of people in the biological sciences -- biologists, foresters, agriculture teachers -- started having lunch together," said Charles Baer, a retired ecology professor at WVU. "We talked about getting a chapter of The Nature Conservancy started in West Virginia, and we talked about buying Cranesville Swamp, which was then available for something like $5 an acre."
By the end of 1960, the WVU group, which included, among others, Roland Guthrie, Roy Clarkson, Eleanor Bush and Baer, began working with the Washington office of The Nature Conservancy, then in its infancy, to buy a 259-acre section of the swamp. The idea was to protect the wetland and promote its use as an outdoor classroom for nature study. In October 1963, Baer and other volunteers chartered the West Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
The land purchased by the ad hoc group of WVU was the first block of land that would become the 1,774-acre Cranesville Swamp Preserve, the first of 13 unique habitat preserves The Nature Conservancy would create and manage in West Virginia.
Located in a "frost pocket" -- a low area in which cold air and moisture is channeled from mountains aligned with the region's prevailing west-to-east weather pattern -- Cranesville is one of the nation's southernmost boreal swamps. The swamp provides habitat for dozens of seldom-seen plant and animal species, ranging from saw whet owls and mountain earth snakes to the wildflower Jacob's ladder and insect-eating sundew plants.
Since The Nature Conservancy began managing Cranesville Swamp, which was logged in the early 1900s, more than 18,000 red spruce and 1,100 white pines have been planted on more than 300 acres. Invasive species like autumn olive have been attacked and monitored, and a system of trails and boardwalks has been developed.
In 1975, The Nature Conservancy established West Virginia's Natural Heritage Program, which catalogs the state's natural assets and helps prioritize conservation efforts. The program is now managed by the state Division of Natural Resources.
Not long after Ed Maguire was hired as TNC's first state director in 1979, a fund-raising campaign was launched to protect Panther Knob in Pendleton County, Slaty Mountain in Monroe County and Brush Creek in Mercer County, all of which are now among the conservancy's 13 West Virginia preserves.
The rocky summit slopes of Panther Knob provide habitat for the state's largest stand of paper birch and the largest fire-maintained pine barren in the Central Appalachians. A globally rare plant community lives in the dry, sun drenched shale barrens of Slaty Mountain, while the slopes surrounding Brush Creek are home to uncommon trees like Canada yew and white cedar, as well as the globally rare shrub Canby's mountain-lover.
During the early 1980s, the conservancy bought its first conservation easement, a land-protection tool that would be used with growing frequency in the years to come. The first conservation easement was acquired to protect General Davis Cave in Greenbrier County, the only known home of the West Virginia spring salamander.
In addition to acquiring 13 preserves across the state, TNC helped federal and state agencies in West Virginia add land to wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas, national forests and national parks.
In the early 1980s, The Nature Conservancy transferred to the New River Gorge National River a 1,200 tract of land at Sandstone Falls that Union Carbide had given to TNC a decade earlier.
In 1989, the conservancy helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service buy the first eight islands that would become a part of the 22-island Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
In 2000, TNC acquired mineral rights to 57,300 acres, and 731 acres of land on Cheat Mountain, which later were transferred to the Monongahela National Forest. In 2004, TNC transferred 1,480 acres it bought from a Pocahontas County lumber company to the Monongahela National Forest. Four years later, the conservancy bought 4,584 acres of land between the New River Gorge National and Babcock State Park, which became part of the Beury Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
In 2011, TNC acquired a 1,080-acre tract near Mount Porte Crayon in Randolph County and transferred it to the Monongahela National Forest. Last year, the conservancy supported the transfer of 3,080 acres of former Canaan Valley Institute land to the state, to create the new Little Canaan Wildlife Management Area.
This year, the conservancy plans to transfer another 450 acres of ridge-top property near Mount Porte Crayon to the Monongahela National Forest.
"In all, The Nature Conservancy has helped conserve 120,000 acres of land in West Virginia," said Rodney Bartgis, the conservancy's state director. "It's a legacy we're quite proud of."
Bartgis said the West Virginia chapter's momentum for conservation remains strong, but the next 50 years will present stronger-than-ever challenges from competing needs for energy and forests, climate change and invasive species.
"I've been lucky to know and be inspired by folks like Charlie Baer and Eleanor Bush, who were there at the beginning, who could envision what others could not, and who were able to make that vision reality," Bartgis said in a recent chapter newsletter.
To help people get acquainted with some of the places the West Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy has protected during its first half century, the chapter has posted a West Virginia Travel Guide, featuring a Top 10 list of outdoor destinations it has had a hand in protecting.
The guide, with drop-down bars for directions and additional information about each site, can be found here. It includes Bear Rocks, the New River Gorge, Gauley Canyon, Brush Creek, Cheat Mountain, Pike Knob, Ohio River Islands, Cranesville Swamp, Dolly Sods and Canaan Valley.
On Sept. 7, the conservancy is hosting a 50th anniversary train ride from Elkins to the spruce forests atop Cheat Mountain and back aboard the Cheat Mountain Salamander excursion train. Bartgis will narrate natural history highlights along the route. For reservations, call 1-877-7245. To receive a $5 discount, give the ticket agent the discount code NC-Spruce-0160. Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.