From: Rick Steelhammer, The Charleston Gazette, W.Va.
Published October 1, 2004 12:00 AM

West Virginia Wood-products Company Accused of Endangered Species Violations

Oct. 1—A coalition of six conservation groups has filed a "notice of violations" letter charging Allegheny Wood Products with violating the terms of the Endangered Species Act by logging and road-building in threatened bat and snail habitat in its new Cheat Canyon holdings.


The notice of violations was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Friends of Blackwater, the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Cheat Lake Environment and Recreation Association, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and Coopers Rock Foundation.


The letter formally notifies the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior of the alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act. It also gives Allegheny Wood Products 60 days to either halt logging activity or obtain an "incidental take" permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service before pursuing possible legal action.


Last year, AWP bought 4,600 acres of land in Cheat Canyon and an adjacent 1,000-acre tract near the mouth of Big Sandy Creek from an Allegheny Energy subsidiary.


Since then, according to the conservation groups' letter, the Petersburg-based timber company has begun logging several parcels in the Big Sandy tract, as well as clearing trees and ditching an abandoned railroad grade in Cheat Canyon.


The state of West Virginia had sought to purchase the same 5,600 acres to create a public wildlife management area.


According to a press release issued by the six conservation groups, the land involved in AWP's Cheat Canyon logging activity provides habitat for the Indiana bat, an endangered species, and the flat-spired, three-toothed land snail, a threatened species known to exist only in Cheat Canyon.


According to the release, AWP's property in Cheat River Canyon makes up about one-third of the three-toothed snail's global habitat. One of the key breeding and hibernating areas for the endangered Indiana bat is Cornwell Cave, which lies "in close proximity to AWP's road-building, tree-removal and habitat disturbance."


The conservation groups charge that AWP was informed after buying the land that it contained Indiana bat and flat-spired, three-toothed snail habitat, but began logging and road-building "without conducting adequate surveys for the species or even applying for a permit" to disturb the two federally listed species.


The timber company also failed to prepare a habitat conservation plan to minimize and mitigate disturbances to federally protected species, according to the conservation groups.


AWP has logged the western end of the Cheat Canyon near Coopers Rock State Forest, according to the conservation groups, and has begun converting the Allegheny Trail, which traverses its property, into a haul road near the town of Albright.


"Like the Blackwater Canyon, the Cheat Canyon is one of West Virginia's unique ecological treasures and also a recreation destination," said Judy Rodd, director of the Friends of Blackwater. "AWP has ignored Fish and Wildlife's request for endangered species surveys in their rush to get out the cut. Now the service must stop this dangerous project."


Northeastern Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said earlier this month that they were aware of complaints regarding AWP's activities in suspected endangered species habitat in Cheat Canyon, but so far had not investigated.


"It is an outrage and an insult to West Virginians that the highest levels of the Fish and Wildlife Service are intentionally turning a blind eye to this clearly illegal activity," said Jim Kotcon of the Sierra Club.


The notice of violations letter asks Fish and Wildlife Service officials to investigate AWP's activity in the Cheat Canyon within 10 days, and inform the conservation group how the agency plans to respond to the conservation groups' allegations.


To see more of The Charleston Gazette, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.wvgazette.com.© 2004, The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


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