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‘New River Gorge of northern West Virginia’ to become DNR wildlife management area

By Rick Steelhammer, Staff writer

ALBRIGHT, W.Va. — A nondescript crevice-dwelling snail with a shell the diameter of a quarter played a starring role in the preservation of a 7.5-mile stretch of Cheat Canyon under an agreement finalized late last week.

The Conservation Fund, working with The Nature Conservancy, purchased the property, which includes a 3,800-acre, rim-to-rim tract of canyon stretching northward from the outskirts of Albright to a segment of Sandy Creek, from The Forestland Group, a timber investment fund. Over the next two years, the land will be transferred to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and become a wildlife management area focused primarily on rare species protection.

As a WMA, the land will be open to the public for waterborne recreation, fishing, hiking, birding and hunting, although segments containing key habitat for rare species are expected to be closed or marked with caution signs.

The canyon contains the best whitewater of the lower Cheat, used by commercial rafting outfitters and their clients, and thousands of kayakers annually. It also supports a smallmouth bass fishery that is rebounding following years of pollution from acid mine drainage now being neutralized through limestone sand treatments in its tributaries. A segment of the 330-mile Allegheny Trail that had been declared off-limits to hikers by a previous landowner, causing a major detour, runs the length of the property.

The canyon is also the home of the Cheat three-tooth snail, “one of the world’s rarest land snails” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency, through a pair of Cooperative Endangered Species Protection grants totaling $1.5 million, got the ball rolling on funding the acquisition of the canyon.

Cracks and fissures in the boulder fields and cliffs of Cheat Canyon encompass Earth’s only known population of the Cheat three-tooth, a species of land snail known to exist only since 1930. “This canyon is one of the world’s most diverse land snail areas, with 60 species known to live here,” said DNR wildlife biologist Craig Stihler.

Stihler said the canyon segment is also the home of Cornwell Cave, where a small population of federally endangered Indiana bats is known to over-winter with other bat species in its three miles of passages.

“Every management decision here will involve the protection and recovery of the snails and bats,” said Curtis Taylor, chief of the DNR’s wildlife section. After developing a recovery plan for the Cheat three-tooth and Indiana bats living on the property, the DNR will be taking up such management issues as the possible development of a river access site midway through the canyon segment, and where and whether to build a possible trailhead parking area for the Allegheny Trail.

“In many ways, this is the New River Gorge of northern West Virginia, although it’s not that well known outside this area,” said Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy. The property’s steep canyon walls rise up to 1,000 feet above Cheat River and provide habitat for such state species of concern as Allegheny woodrats, red bats, green salamandersotters and bald eagles along with a variety of other non-threatened species.

Except for a section of the Allegheny Trail that was converted into a haul road for log trucks by a previous owner,there is no easy access to the property. The tract’s relative inaccessibility and steep, rocky terrain “should make this a fairly marginal area for hunting,” Taylor said. But those fishing or floating the Cheat through the canyon during slow summer flows “will have a true wilderness experience,”he said.

“Tracts this big almost never become availble any more,” Taylor said. “It took a piecemeal funding mosaic involving a lot of organizations to make this happen, but that’s the way this kind of business will be done from here on out.”

The Forestland Group gave conservation organizations a chance to buy the property before it went on the market, Bartgis said, making it possible for the Conservation Fund to negotiate a purchase agreement.

After the $1.5 in endangered species protection grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were announced, The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia was selected from affiliates across the country to receive a $3 million grant made possible by a private donor to help purchase the tract. That money pays for a 2,300 acre section of the tract that will be owned by the conservancy as a nature preserve, but will be managed by the DNR as part of its wildlife management area. People visiting the wildlife management area won’t be able to tell when they’re on DNR land or TNC land, Bartgis said, because they will be managed as one unit.

A total of $400,000 in mitigation money received by the state Division of Environmental Protection through its In Lieu of Fee Program also went into the purchase, along with monies from the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund. The state chapter of The Nature Conservancy is raising an additional $500,000 by the end of the year to cover remaining costs.

The entire acquisition project will end up costing about $7 million, Bartgis said.

The purchase will conserve nearly all Cheat Canyon land not already included in Coopers Rock State Forest and the Snake Hill Wildlife Management Area.

“No state tax money or hunting and fishing license fees were used in this project,” Taylor said.

Except for river users, the tract won’t likely be open to the public until this fall, after the DNR completes its initial management plan, according to Taylor.

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

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the agency that is raising an additional $500,000 by the end of the year. The agency is the state chapter of The Nature Conservancy.


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