PAINT CREEK, W.Va. -- Ever since he was old enough to go in the woods on his own, John Smith has been hunting in the hills and hollows of Paint Creek.
"It's the only place I've ever hunted," said Smith, 25.
Generations of Paint Creek residents have grown up hunting in the area, most on land owned by ParDee Mineral and Land Company. Michael Garrison, 65, has hunted the hills on his own, with his children and with his grandchildren.
For years, ParDee officials have let the locals use the hills and hollows of the company's more than 40,000 acres for hunting, hiking, fishing and recreation. But ParDee recently sold the surface and timber rights to The Forestland Group, LLC, a timbering company based in North Carolina.
Forestland Group officials have told residents there will be no hunting on the property next year, although the company may lease out the property for hunting in coming years.
Almost the first thing the Forestland Group did after buying the property was put up no trespassing signs up almost every hollow in Paint Creek. For Paint Creek residents used to having free rein to use the ParDee land, the new ownership means no hunting without paying a fee, and no hiking, fishing or ATV riding at all.
But to members of the Paint Creek Watershed Association, the change of ownership could mean far more.
"When [the watershed association] first started, this creek was dead," said Richard Milam, a member of the Kanawha County planning department, who serves as the county's representative to the Paint Creek Watershed Association.
Watershed association volunteers have spent 20 years cleaning up the creek and hollows of Paint Creek. Where water once ran black down streams cluttered with old appliances, tires and trash, trout now swim. Volunteers have built hiking trails, put in picnic areas, made fishing piers and pulled trash and debris from streams and hillsides.
"I spent a lot of my days as a child and growing up cleaning this place up," Smith recalled.
Officials for ParDee helped with the clean-up projects and supported the watershed association. But Forestland's position is still unknown.
Watershed association President Mim Campbell and Vice President Kenny King said much of the work they did is now on the wrong side of Forestland Group's no trespassing signs. Unless a deal can be worked out with company officials, they worry the watershed association will be unable to maintain the trails and facilities they've put in. Residents will no longer be able to use the trails and facilities without risking a fine or criminal charge.
Craig Kaderavek, Forestland Group director for Appalachian operations in Chapel Hill, N.C., said the company has promised to cooperate with the watershed association on protecting the forest, trails and facilities.
"Our intentions are to work with them, similar to what they worked out with ParDee previously," Kaderavek said. He said company officials are working on a new agreement with the watershed association.
King said company officials have promised to work with the watershed association.