Wild, wonderful West Virginia gets wilder

Congress reclassifies more than 39,000 acres as new wilderness areas in state's national forest

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PARSONS, W.Va. -- Terri Knotts, who pours coffee and pushes peanut butter pie at Trisha's Family Restaurant, said hikers on their way to the Otter Creek Wilderness will begin trickling in next month and beat a steady path through town all summer.

The recent expansion of that wilderness, just four miles south of town on state Route 72, plus other new and expanded wilderness areas in the nearby Monongahela National Forest, will help awaken this sleepy town of 1,400, she said.

"We'll start picking up in May, and in the spring and summer we do get a lot of people who come here to hike the wilderness, plus cavers and hunters from out of state, too," Ms. Knotts said. "More wilderness will be good. I haven't heard anything negative about it. A lot of people here are actively into the land, hunting, fishing and gathering herbs and foods in the forest."

In a state that once proudly wore the slogan "Wild and Wonderful," more than 39,000 remote, rugged roadless acres in the Monongahela National Forest were reclassified as wilderness last month, additions that reflect West Virginians' continuing attachment to natural landscapes along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, said Dave Saville, a public lands advocate with the West Virginia Conservancy.

"West Virginia residents have a lot of pride in the state," said Mr. Saville, who spent the past decade working on securing more wilderness in the 919,000-acre forest. "We feel a strong connection to the land that stems from a largely rural past. For us, it was a relatively easy sell to protect it."

But easy is indeed relative. It took almost nine years for wilderness advocates to draft a proposal and line up broad-based support from businesses, church groups, hunters and fishermen, and local governments from around the forest and across the state, then peddle it to West Virginia's two U.S. senators and three-member Congressional delegation.

The original West Virginia Wilderness Coalition proposal contained 15 areas in the Monongahela, but it was reduced to six to settle or avoid conflicts with incompatible uses -- mountain bikers who are prohibited from riding in wilderness areas were among the most vocal of those -- and make it politically palatable. All three of the state's congressional districts include a part of the national forest, and new wilderness was designated in each.

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, both West Virginia Democrats, are longstanding supporters of the national forest and wilderness. Mr. Rahall is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, was more cautious.

"We wanted to preserve some of our state's beautiful terrain, but it has to be balanced against the interests of local residents who use the land in their daily lives," she said. "Every region or congressional district is a bit different, so what worked in one area isn't necessarily the right solution for another area. In our case, there were those that wanted more wilderness areas and those that wanted less, so I was pleased that we came to a bit of a consensus around a middle ground."

David Herring, a spokesman for Mr. Mollohan, praised the wilderness advocacy groups for their persistence, grass-roots organizing skills and professionalism.

"Mr. Mollohan is very supportive of more wilderness, so they had an easy audience there, but whenever you propose setting aside public lands, you have to deal with certain interests and you've got to work through that and compromise," Mr. Herring said.

The new West Virginia wilderness designations were contained in the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009, which granted National Wilderness Preservation System protection to 170 tracts of forests, range land and scenic rivers in three eastern and six western states.

In addition to adding 740 acres to the Otter Creek Wilderness, 7,215 acres to the existing Dolly Sods Wilderness, and 12,032 acres to the Cranberry Wilderness, the act carved three new wilderness areas out of the existing federal forest land:

• The Spice Run Wilderness is 7,124 acres of heavily forested mountains and valleys without roads or even trails on the eastern slope of the Greenbrier River. It contains three native brook trout streams and is accessible only by canoe, kayak or one rough road that requires a four-wheel drive vehicle.

• The 6,820-acre Roaring Plains West Wilderness is a wind-swept, spruce-studded plateau that contains the state's highest elevation wetlands and habitat for snowshoe hares, bog lemmings, bobcats and fishers.

• The 5,242-acre Big Draft Wilderness is an oak-hickory forest with 13 miles of hiking trails and is a popular recreation destination at the southern end of the national forest.

"It wasn't everything we wanted, but getting it passed was a very historic moment and really great for the national forest and the people of the state," said Mike Costello, coordinator of the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, a federation of environmental groups formed in 2001 to campaign for expanded wilderness in West Virginia's only national forest.

"One of the things about the nature of the work we do on the environment is that change is often somewhat incremental," Mr. Costello said. "So when you haven't had a wilderness bill passed for 25 years, it's a special time."

Wilderness is the nation's most protective land classification, prohibiting road building, construction of structures, permanent residence and mechanized means of transportation. The Monongahela Forest new wilderness designations, the first since 1984, increase the wilderness acreage there to 116,000 acres, or 12.5 percent.

That's about average for most other national forests in the eastern part of the nation, but much more than the 513,000-acre Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania, where two wilderness areas total 8,979 acres, or less than 2 percent.

Advocates for more Allegheny wilderness made detailed proposals to expand protected areas more than five years ago, but their plans have raised loud opposition from timber, oil and gas industries. They also have not been able to garner any support from pro-business congressmen representing Elk, Forest, Warren and McKean counties, where the forest is located.

Pennsylvania's U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard in Centre County, said his priority now is the economy and "strengthening the economic engine" of the forest. He doesn't support any proposal that would place timber and oil and gas resources off limits for development.

"It's all about jobs here and the industries that developed as a result of the Allegheny National Forest, which is not a national park," said Mr. Thompson, who was elected to his first term in Congress in November and voted against the legislation that created wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest.

John Peterson, a Republican congressman from Titusville, Crawford County, who represented Pennsylvania's mainly rural and politically conservative Fifth District from 1997 through 2008, said the region was "fighting for its economic life" before the current economic downturn.

"This area is not in the mood to see any forest land locked up in wilderness, " Mr. Peterson said. "And the private mineral rights ownership under much of the forest also makes the wilderness question very complicated."

When the Allegheny National Forest was created by the Weeks Act in 1923 to control flooding and erosion in the Allegheny watershed, the money appropriated was used to buy as much surface land as possible but not the underlying mineral rights, which would have been more expensive and limited the surface purchases. As a result, about 95 percent of the mineral rights, mainly oil and natural gas, are privately owned.

About 38 percent of the mineral rights under the Monongahela National Forest are privately owned, including some underneath the new wilderness areas.

In the Allegheny, the widespread private mineral rights ownership has resulted in significant drilling -- more than 12,000 wells are operating in the forest -- and limited areas where wilderness designations are appropriate.

But Kirk Johnson, who founded Friends of the Allegheny Wilderness in 2001 and is its executive director, remains optimistic about his long-range chances for success.

Last week, the National Wildlife Federation announced its support of his proposal to add eight areas and 54,460 acres of wilderness. And in January, a group of 54 scientists and academics also endorsed that proposal, saying new wilderness designations would improve ecological diversity on the Allegheny Plateau, protect endangered species and preserve forests threatened by timbering, oil and gas drilling, and road building.

Mr. Johnson said timbering groups and elected officials have mounted strong resistance to wilderness expansion in the Allegheny because of the unique and lucrative black cherry tree forest in the Allegheny.

"I'm still confident we can get more wilderness on the Allegheny before too long, and that it wouldn't conflict with the timbering," Mr. Johnson said. "This whole idea that it's either wilderness or timber is a false dichotomy. We can do both, and I hope we will eventually arrive at that realization."

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. First Published April 12, 2009 4:00 AM


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