West Virginia conservation groups seek new status for national forest tracts

Matt Keller leaned over a relatively dry section of brackish, mossy wetland known as a sphagnum bog and collected a handful of ripe cranberries from the lacy runners that connected the fruit to its tiny, delicate leaves and roots.

Matt Keller leaned over a relatively dry section of brackish, mossy wetland known as a sphagnum bog and collected a handful of ripe cranberries from the lacy runners that connected the fruit to its tiny, delicate leaves and roots.

In a clearing behind him, time-fractured slabs of purplish-white limestone studded with green lichens led toward a grove of windswept spruce trees surrounded by huckleberry and blueberry bushes. The only sounds to be heard were those of wind gusting through spruce boughs, and the occasional peeps of migrating songbirds making a food stop on their way south.

"This is one of my favorite places," said Keller, as he shared a few of his tart, freshly picked cranberries and took in the view.

"It's always great to get up here. It's worth saving, isn't it?"

Keller was standing on a corner of the proposed Roaring Plains Wilderness, one of 15 wild and roadless tracts of Monongahela National Forest land a coalition of three conservation groups is seeking to add to the nation's wilderness system.

The rocky, 15,138-acre mesa, encompassing Roaring Plains and Flatrock Plains, makes up the highest plateau in the east, towering 3,100 feet above the South Branch of the Potomac River immediately to the East, creating the greatest vertical drop found in West Virginia. It provides habitat for the federally threatened Cheat Mountain salamander, as well as the snowshoe hare, bog lemming, bobcat and fisher, and a variety of plants usually associated with the Far North.

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the state chapters of the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society have been working for the past two years to identify parcels of national forest land that meet federal wilderness standards. They then picked the areas with the best prospects of receiving congressional approval and began encouraging public and congressional support through a newly created West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, which Keller directs.

The coalition also has taken pains to head off at the pass potential conflicts with other forest users -- mountain bikers in particular -- and wildlife managers.

The effort comes 40 years after Congress passed the National Wilderness Protection Act, created to ensure that "an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States."

The act was designed to set aside "areas of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence" and preserve them as places where "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, and where man himself is a visitor."

In federally designated wilderness areas, logging, mineral extraction, road building, campground development and motorized vehicle use -- including mountain bikes -- is prohibited.

Eleven years after enactment, West Virginia's first two wilderness areas were created from public lands in the Monongahela National Forest.

Dolly Sods, a 10,215-acre tract known for its rocky plains, upland bogs, heath barrens and wind-stunted spruce forests reminiscent of northern Canada, straddles a high plateau just east of Canaan Valley. Otter Creek, a 20,000-acre natural bowl formed by the slopes of Shavers Mountain and McGowan Mountain, is a haven for black bear, beaver, turkey and timber rattlers in an expansive roadless area between Elkins and Parsons.

In 1983, the 35,864-acre Cranberry Wilderness, encompassing the entire drainage of the Middle Fork of the Williams River and the North Fork of the Cranberry, was added to the system. Also added that year was the Laurel Fork Wilderness, actually two adjacent parcels totaling 12,052 acres straddling Laurel Fork of the Cheat River. The wilderness was divided into north and south units because an active Forest Service road bisects the otherwise roadless tract.

Now, 21 years after the last piece of Monongahela National Forest land was added to the national wilderness system, the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition is leading an ambitious effort to add 15 wildernesses totaling 143,000 acres.

The new effort became possible two years ago, when Monongahela National Forest officials began their first mandatory review of a forest management plan implemented in 1986. The review required forest planners to take a new look at what sections of the Mon met federal wilderness standards and could be evaluated for possible wilderness designation.

Forest Service and Wilderness Coalition planners came up with a near-identical list of prospective candidates of strikingly similar size.

"Our wilderness acreage totaled 143,000 acres, and theirs came out to 138,000 acres," said Keller. "I was very pleased with how close we were."

To gain support from mountain bikers, Wilderness Coalition planners decided not to push for wilderness designation for a pair of tracts that cleared the Forest Service's qualifying bar: Canaan Mountain, a 7,900-acre tract between Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley state parks in Tucker County, and Tea Creek Mountain, an 8,289-acre parcel just north of the existing Cranberry Wilderness.

The coalition also worked with Forest Service and Division of Natural Resources wildlife managers to excise an additional 17,130 acres from their final list of wilderness candidates. The deletion allows managers to maintain nearly all existing and planned wildlife clearings, food plots, water holes and limestone-treatment sites for acid-plagued streams.

"One unique aspect of this wilderness campaign is the positive nature of it," said Dave Saville of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

"This is our initiative. It's proactive. We are not responding to someone else's action or responding to some destructive activity. We are not trying to stop something or work against someone. ... We are all about building bridges, cooperating and making friends."

"There are a lot of myths about what a wilderness designation means," said Mary Wimmer, a professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at the West Virginia University medical school and a veteran Sierra Club member who is active in the Wilderness Coalition campaign.

"Some people think private land will be bought up and used to create wilderness areas, but private property's not involved at all," she said. "All the land we're talking about is already publicly owned and a part of the Monongahela National Forest."

While commercial timbering is not allowed on wilderness land, most of the land being considered for wilderness status is being managed under a prescription that already makes it off-limits to logging. If all wilderness proposals in the Mon were approved, less than 1 percent of the state's commercial timberland would be affected.

Hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and primitive camping are allowed in wilderness areas, Wimmer added, and no roads now open for traffic would be closed to create the "roadless" chunks of land needed to qualify for wilderness status.

While mountain biking is not allowed in wilderness areas, there are more than 680 miles of trails outside the proposed wilderness areas that would remain open to riders elsewhere in the Monongahela.

"A lot of wilderness supporters are mountain bikers, too," said Wimmer. "I think most realize that there are plenty of places to ride, but only a relatively small portion of land untrammeled enough to qualify for wilderness designation, especially here in the East."

Only 4 percent of the National Wilderness Preservation System can be found east of the Mississippi, where more than 60 percent of the nation's population lives. Federally designated wilderness areas make up less than 9 percent of the Mon, which is about half the national average.

The relative lack of wilderness areas in the East has caused overuse to occur at the state's existing areas, Wimmer said. "On a three-day weekend, in mild weather, things can get very crowded," she said. "Adding more wilderness areas will take some of the pressure off places like Dolly Sods."

"Having so much eligible land available here in West Virginia is amazing," said Keller. "In the East, it just doesn't get any better."

A proposed 11,795-acre addition to the existing Cranberry Wilderness, Keller said, would make the Cranberry, with 47,659 acres, the third-largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi, behind Minnesota's Boundary Waters and the wilderness portion of Florida's Everglades.

"West Virginia has the chance to become a major destination for people who want to get out and experience wilderness," Keller said.

While much of the land being eyed for wilderness status is managed almost to wilderness standards, the congressional designation remains important, according to Saville.

"People are often fooled into believing that national forest lands are protected, when in fact they face threats on many fronts," he said. "Right now, the Forest Service is working on four very large timber sales totaling tens of millions of board feet on thousands of acres of the Monongahela.

"People want to hold car races on the Mon, and build wind farms, ski resorts, gas wells, pipelines, power lines, ATV trails and a whole host of other destructive activities. Wilderness designation is the only way to permanently protect a few remaining roadless areas."

In November, Forest Service planners are scheduled to assess whether new wilderness areas are needed on the Monongahela. If it is determined that such a need exists, they will make recommendations, taking public comment into account, on which -- if any -- of the qualifying areas should be recommended for wilderness designation.

Congress makes the decision on granting wilderness status.

"There's a backlog of wilderness proposals before us now," said Jim Zoia, chief of staff for Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. "But the process is starting to come around, and we're seeing some movement."

So far, President Bush has signed all four wilderness bills that have reached his desk, according to Wimmer.

"I have no illusion that we'll get all 15 areas," said Saville. "We're pragmatic and know we may have to compromise on some of them. But we have a proposal that we can be proud of and easily defend."

(c) 2004, The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.