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In 20th year, land trust plans to help preserve more acres

By Rick Steelhammer, Staff writer
Courtesy photo
Boy Scouts move a fallen tree from a trail in Charleston’s Wallace Hartman Nature Preserve — a property managed with help from the West Virginia Land Trust.
Sweeping views into West Virginia’s eastern highlands can be seen from 3,500-foot-high Elk Knob in Summers County, where the West Virginia Land Trust, in cooperation with the Summers County Farmland Preservation Board, secured a conservation easement protecting a 175-acre farm.
Sandstone formations and a lush hardwod forest sprinkled with pines and hemlock greet visitors to Charleston’s Wallace Hartman Nature Preserve.

From negotiating an easement that saved a section of Trace Fork Canyon in South Charleston from the construction footprint of Dudley Plaza Mall in the 1990s to last February’s finalization of an easement protecting a historic 175-acre farm on 3,500-foot Elk Knob in Summers County from subdivision and second-home development, the West Virginia Land Trust is making its presence known throughout the state.

As West Virginia’s only statewide nonprofit land trust prepares to enter its 20th year, it has helped permanently protect nearly 2,000 acres of natural lands and farms so far, and is poised to dramatically accelerate its preservation work in the years to come.

In fact, at this year’s May 22 Special Places Event, the West Virginia Land Trust’s biggest annual fundraiser, a goal of $75,000 has been set to cover the costs of protecting an additional 10,000 acres now under study.

“We’ve got a lot of projects in the pipeline now, and I think we will be expanding significantly in the next two or three years,” WVLT executive director Brent Bailey said. “We were a volunteer-led organization for many years, but an influx in funding two years ago allowed us to staff up appropriately for the first time.”

The WVLT now has two people working full-time with landowners across the state on land protection issues, while others on the eight-person staff focus on fundraising, science, land management and public outreach issues.

Bailey said the influx in funding comes mainly from the Land Trust being recognized as a qualified recipient of funds from lawsuit settlements involving violations of the Clean Water Act within West Virgina.

The WVLT works with landowners interested in preserving property with significant scenic, botanical, recreational or historic qualities through conservation easements or real estate purchases. The easement agreements remain in effect in perpetuity, allowing current property owners and their heirs or future buyers to continue using the land in the manner it was being used at the time the easements were issued, but forbidding them from developing or subdividing the property. The WVLT makes sure the terms of the easements are being followed, and helps landowners with technical assistance on conservation issues.

“Working with landowners who are looking at land conservation for their property can be a long process,” Bailey said. “If they want to retain the property but donate a conservation easement to it, we want to make sure they’ve thought it through and that everyone is happy with the way the process is going before we move forward. Land conservation is very detailed work, involving property law, taxes and contracts. It can often take 18 months to two years to complete the process, but the property owner is always in the driver’s seat.”

In addition to conserving farms, wetlands, farms and forests, the WVLT is interested in preserving land along streams — especially sites that would improve public access, promote recreational activity and protect safe public drinking water by preserving riverfront land upstream from public water system intakes. The Land Trust is focusing on stream-side properties in the Elk, Coal, Gauley, Guyandotte, Greenbrier, Kanawha and New River watersheds. Properties that buffer, or could possibly be added to, public parks and forests are also being targeted.

Properties protected with assistance from the WVLT include:

The 52-acre Wallace Hartman Nature Preserve,off South Ruffner Road in Charleston, for which the WVLT is drafting a management plan.

A 100-acre section of lake-front land, including a mature hardwood forest, at Cheat Lake in Monongalia County.

A 90-acre tract of mature slope-side forest about six miles south of Morgantown, where a WVLT management plan is underway.

A 212-acre farm in Monroe County adjacent to a National Scenic Byway, in partnership with the Indian Creek Conservancy.

A 175-acre historic farm in Jackson County.

A 384-acre historic farm in Pocahontas County abutting the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Monongahela National Forest.

“I am very comforted that this farm that has been in our family since the mid-1800s will remain as it is for generations to come,” said Patsy Cummings, co-owner of the Pocahontas County farm. “I loved growing up nearby and spent lots of time here, and now I love to come back and enjoy our farm in the valley nestled in the mountains. It brings me a sense of renewal and peace, and now with the conservation easement with the West Virginia Land Trust the property will continue in the same manner.”

There are currently eight land trust organizations working in West Virginia, where they are responsible for saving nearly 32,000 acres of land between 2005 and 2010.

“All of the land protection organizations working here differ slightly in focus, and some have really restrictive geographical areas in which they operate,”Bailey said. “We work together whenever we can.”

While the amount of land preserved with assistance from West Virginia land trust organizations grew 44 percent between 2005 and 2010, the total acreage preserved ranks 40th in the nation, according to the WVLT.

Bailey said the state could preserve much more land if laws were in place giving landowners a state income tax credit for donating land or conservation easements to a land conservation trust.

In Virginia, which ranks fifth in the nation for acres saved through land trust action, transferable state tax credits are available to landowners, Bailey said. “Landowners can sell their tax credits to those looking for some, creating a private sector marketplace that allows landowners to monetize the benefits of their conservation easements,” he said. “If West Virginia offered such transferable credits, the acreage we’re preserving would expand considerably.”

The May 22 Special Places Event, which starts at 6 p.m. in the Columbia Gas Auditorium in Charleston, is held annually to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to land conservation in their communities.

This year, all 12 landowners who have granted conservation easements to WVLT are being recognized, including: Bill Hevener and his sister Patsy Cummings, who partnered with WVLT to preserve their 160-year-old family farm in Pocahontas County; Terry Williams of Summers County, whose conservation easement protects 175 acres once targeted for a 75-lot residential development; Dolly Wallace Hartman, who worked with WVLT to protect a 52-acre tract of woodland now known as the Wallace Hartman Nature Preserve in Charleston’s South Ruffner district; Elizabeth Zimmerman of Monongalia County, who donated 84 acres of forest open to public use a few miles south of Morgantown;

Page Dickson,who worked with WVLT to preserve the historic heritage of 436 acres of farmland in Spring Valley, Monroe County; Russell Isaacs, for an easement to his 175-acre Jackson County farm; Charles and Dorothy Larew, for an easement to preserve their scenic, 202-acre Monroe County farm; Dave Adkins’ 150 acre farm in Monroe County; Keith Straw, for helping save 25 acres of the Straw Family Farm in Greenbrier County; John A. Reynolds and Ann Reynolds Harvey for an easement to a horse farm in Harrison County, and to Holmes and Antoinette Morrison for an easement to protect their scenic Davis Creek residential retreat in Kanawha County.

Bridge Road Bistro is catering the fundraiser, with the Bandwagon providing live bluegrass music. Silent auction items range from a week’s stay in Tuscany and WVU football tickets to a guided rock climbing tour at Nelson Rocks Outdoor Center in Pendleton County and a float for two down the Coal River.

For tickets and more information about the WVLT’s Special Places Event, call 304-342-1639, or visit www.wvlandtrust.org.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at

rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com

or 304-348-5169.


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