As 2023 comes to a close, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy would like to share the latest updates from our organization from the past year. 2023 has been another year of dedicated stewardship, tireless advocacy, and the continuation and start of new projects aimed at safeguarding the beauty and biodiversity of our beloved West Virginia highlands. We hope you feel empowered to donate to continue this work and keep West Virginia Wild and Wonderful.
The Legislative Committee had a successful start to 2023, with several key victories during the legislative session. They were instrumental in the passage of an amendment that prohibits new Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) systems in state parks, ensuring the preservation of these natural areas. Additionally, the PFAS Protection Act was passed, requiring action plans for community water systems with elevated levels of PFAS. There was also an increase in funding for the Office of Oil and Gas Inspectors and the defeat of restrictions on private forest carbon capture agreements. These achievements highlight the effectiveness of our legislative advocacy efforts and the importance of our work in protecting the environment. The Legislative Committee continued to support the West Virginia Environmental Council, donating $9,000 to support the great work of our team of Legislative lobbyists. We are hoping to continue to bring light to the underpaid nature of our lobbyists and your donations would ensure that environmental lobbyists supporting causes important to the highlands are compensated.
Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards
The Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards have been working diligently to preserve and protect the Dolly Sods Wilderness area, a unique and ecologically significant region. Throughout 2023, our organization further expanded the capabilities of the Stewards by training a new Crosscut Sawyer team, who will be responsible for removing fallen trees and clearing trail routes without the use of motorized equipment, which is prohibited in Wilderness areas. Additionally, the Stewards established a Trail Maintenance team to ensure proper drainage and tread hardening on the trails, minimizing environmental impact and ensuring hiker safety. The Wilderness Trailhead Stewards continued to staff the most popular trailheads, as they have done for the past two years, staffing the most popular trailheads and providing valuable information and guidance to visitors on having a safe and low-impact experience in Dolly Sods. Furthermore, the Solitude Monitoring team conducted an enhanced survey to assess the number of other groups and people encountered on the Wilderness trails, providing valuable data for future management decisions.
Since the 1960s, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has been at the forefront of the fight against the proposed Corridor H highway. Over the years, we have successfully prevented the worst routes from being chosen, but there are still two remaining sections that could have devastating consequences for the environment and local communities. Within the heart of the West Virginia Highlands lays the state highway department’s preferred alternative, which would permanently degrade the upper Blackwater Canyon and its historic district just west of Blackwater Falls State Park, and it would also disrupt the greenway between Thomas and Davis. We have been actively advocating for an alternate route north of Thomas, and in August, the Federal Highway Administration agreed to study this option. However, we anticipate that further legal action may be necessary to protect the region from the construction of the highway.
Public Lands Committee
The Public Lands Committee continues to monitor proposed projects within the Monongahela National Forest, submitting comments and suggestions identified through our reviews. To date, the Conservancy has submitted comments and suggestions specific to fourteen projects and received various responses concerning our comments and suggestions from the Forest Service. In addition, the Conservancy issued a letter of support for the Forest Service acquisition of a 450-acre tract of land located west of Cunningham Knob and east of the Laurel Fork South Wilderness, which provides opportunities for the Monongahela National Forest to increase efficient management of resources. This tract location will further and greatly enhance ongoing and future opportunities for land restoration, public access, and other conservation efforts. This year, members of the Public Lands Committee have been meeting monthly with members of the Forest Service to discuss plans and actions for the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards program, which has now completed its second year. The very popular outings program was continued with a Bird Outing at Blackwater Falls State Park, an Old Growth Forest Outing at Watoga State Park, and a Mushroom Foray at Canaan Valley State Park. An outing for youth with many great activities is planned for next year.
Extractive Industries Committee
The mining industry is the gift that keeps on giving. There are new mines, old mines, and not so old mines that are still polluting our lands and water. The Extractive Industries Committee takes its inspiration from a line in an old song: “Step by step, the longest march can be won, can be won” (from the preamble to the constitution of the first mineworkers union in the United States, written in 1870. Later set to music by Pete Seeger). We continue the long slog of trying to make sure that mines fulfil their obligations under the law. We do this both at individual mines and by advocating that the system which seeks to assure the financing of the reclamation of old mines becomes solvent. 2023 saw the final approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline; we (and our lawyers) went down swinging, fighting in court until the fight was over.
The Rivers Committee has been busy in the past year focusing efforts on a number of issues related to the future construction of Corridor H in Tucker County. It has partnered with West Virginia Rivers Coalition and Friends of Cheat to train and supervise citizen scientists who monitor the water quality of the streams that are, or may be, affected by the highway construction. So far, 14 months of baseline data has been collected. In addition, these three groups are working together to plan and conduct a Visual Assessment Training for the public in early 2024. The goal of this training is to empower and educate the citizens that live near, or travel through, the Corridor H construction zones on how to record and report on any stream, river or other conditions that are of concern. We are hoping that more eyes on the project will encourage contractors to prevent environmental degradation and will catch any problems when they occur rather than after the fact. The Rivers Committee has also established a positive working relationship with the West Virginia Division of Highways (WVDOH) Environmental Inspector in relation to the core drilling associated with the highway construction and hopes to work together with WVDOH to prevent as much environmental impact as possible during planning and construction of this highway.
The Grant Committee might be young, but it is mighty! Since its development in early 2023, the Grant Committee has already seen a lot of success. Specifically, the Grants Committee was awarded a recent grant from the Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area (AFNHA) to develop a Highlands Creatures coloring book, which aims to get children involved in protecting and preserving the Appalachian Highlands. The Highlands coloring book project funded by AFNHA is just one example of our commitment to engaging the next generation in environmental stewardship.
Our committees are at the heart of driving the Conservancy’s initiatives and campaigns forward. We are always looking for volunteers to join committees. Send an email to email@example.com if you are interested in joining a committee in 2024 and helping advance our mission!