The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy was one of many non-governmental organizations and individuals whose support was instrumental in conserving a large portion of Canaan Valley as a National Wildlife Refuge. As we examine our progress on this, our 50th anniversary, let’s take a brief look at what was a very long story.
The logging era of the late 1800s and early 1900s clear cut much of our eastern forest, including that in our lovely valley. Also in the early 1900s electricity in homes was becoming common.
Rather than waiting 40 years for the forest to grow back after logging, companies were looking to divest their property, Runoff from barren lands contributed to flooding in downstream cities. This triggered the federal government to begin buying land and re-growing forests to stabilize the soils. Thus the US Forest service was born. But power companies were also interested in some of the land, particularly where dams might be built to generate power. Such was the case in Canaan Valley. The company that would become Allegheny Power Systems acquired much land in the northern part of the valley.
Some of the first conversations about conserving Canaan Valley land probably happened in the late 1950s. Early successional habitat in the valley made it an ideal spot for woodcock, and some woodcock hunters worked for the WV Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS or the Service). In 1961 the USFWS conducted a biological survey of the wetlands and wildlife habitat in Canaan Valley. At that time most of the wetlands the USFWS conserved were production areas for waterfowl. Canaan Valley was different, so the Service didn’t act on what they found at that time. But the stage was set for the future struggle.
The 1970s – The Proposed Davis Power Project
In July of 1970 the Allegheny Power System (APS) applied for a permit for the Davis Power Project (DPP or proposed project) from the Federal Power Commission (FPC, a pre-cursor of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC). A year later they submitted an environmental assessment of the proposed project. The project would build two dams. The large one would be on the Blackwater River, between Canaan and Brown Mountains and would flood the valley floor. The small one would be in the Dobbin Slashing area of north Dolly Sods. At night when power demand was low, water would be pumped to the upper reservoir. During the day when more power was needed, the water would flow through pipes from the upper reservoir to the lower one, turning turbines and generating power as it went.
Linda Cooper had grown up in the valley and was distressed that this might happen to her home. As a student at Berea College in Kentucky she had gotten experience in community organizing and working on environmental issues. She and her husband filed to be interveners on the project. They also started working with WV Highlands Conservancy as volunteers, forming a committee to work on this issue, and eventually becoming board members and officers of our group. Writing articles, writing letters to FPC and to Senators and Congressmen, gathering allies in the environmental community, encouraging them to write, and write and write.
For Linda Cooper, this work came at great personal cost. The Davis Power Project was sold to her community as something that would bring jobs, recreation and tourism to the Canaan Valley. Many of her family and old friends supported the project. It was hard.
And then there was the legal front. The environmental assessment that Allegheny Power System (APS) had written was found to be insufficient. Federal Power Commission was told by the courts to write their own. Their environmental impact statement on the Davis Power Project came out in 1974. It recommended against licensure of the project. It was followed by 10 weeks of hearing with FPCs Administrative Law Judge, including a time in Parsons and a tour of the valley. Two years passed before the Judge issued his recommendation. In June 1976 he recommended against licensure. He wrote, “The specific adverse environmental consequences resulting from the construction of the Davis Power Project will not be overcome by the benefits which may be derived from the lake, from the recreational areas and from the wildlife preserve proposed by the Applicants, with or without any or all of the further suggestions put forward by those essentially favoring the proposed project.” The judge recommended a smaller project, the Glade Run Alternative, be licensed instead of the original DPP. The Glade Run Alternative would still have two reservoirs, but the lower reservoir would be much smaller, on Glade Run instead of on the Blackwater River. It had not been proposed by Allegheny Power Systems, and had not been fully studied.
The state of West Virginia had originally sided with its Wildlife Biologists in the WV Division of Natural Resources, who were opposed to the project. But in 1977 they reversed that, favoring the Davis Power Project. They asked that the FPC reopen its hearings. FPC did not re-open the hearings, but in 1977 did issue the license for the Davis Power Project as originally proposed, despite the recommendations of their staff that had written the Environmental Impact Statement, and their Judge that had conducted the hearings.
By August of 1977 the FPC had become the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The WV Highlands Conservancy joined with other environmental groups to sue FERC over the issuance of the license for the Davis Power Project, asking that the license be set aside because of violation of federal and FERC statutes. The first oral arguments were heard in the US Court of Appeals In October of 1978.
Meanwhile, Allegheny Power Systems (APS) filed an application with the US Army, Corps of Engineers (ACE) for a permit under section 404 of the Clean Water Act, for placement of fill in wetlands of the United States, specifically in the Canaan Valley for the Davis Power Project. This was their last obstacle. If they received this permit, the largest wetland complex in West Virginia would be flooded. In July of 1978 the US Army Corps of Engineers held hearings on this application. The Corps of Engineers found these to be unique, the only wetlands of its type and size in the eastern US. The unthinkable happened. They denied the permit.
APS responded by suing the Corps of Engineers, saying they were arbitrary and capricious in their denial of the permit, and that since the project was licensed by FERC, the Corps of Engineers did not have this authority. The US Court of Appeals would review the results of this case, along with the case brought by environmental groups against FERC about issuing the license, and would make one decision.
In February 1979, President Carter ordered a special Department of the Energy (DOE) task force to study the alternatives to the Davis Power Project. They hired a consultant who prepared a report. It was going to find that many viable alternatives to the DPP. There was a nationwide push for energy conservation, and companies were finding less need for more power plants than they had previously anticipated. But the administration had changed. The report was delayed for another review. In March 1981 the Project Director for the DOE report determined that the basis of the report was longer valid and the report would be halted.
Later that spring FERC issued a stay on construction. Two years had passed since licensing, and construction had not been started, since the 404 permit had not been issued. An extension could not be awarded amidst the lawsuits, so a stay on construction was ordered.
The district court ruled in favor of APS in December of 1980. They ruled that since they had a FERC license, they did not need a 404 permit. This decision was appealed by environmental groups two months later.
Also 1970s – The Proposed Refuge
Notice that some of the dates in this section overlap the dates in the previous section. The proposed Davis Power Project and the proposed Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge were two distinct project proposals that overlapped in space and time.
In May of 1975 the National Park Service designated Canaan Valley as a National Natural Landmark. This designation does not come with automatic protection, but does acknowledge the value of the land as it is, a small help to those working for valley preservation.
In 1977 the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would consider establishing a Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge (CVNWR). It then petitioned to become an intervener on the Davis Power Project.
By March of 1978 the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge had been prepared and released for public comment. Many who were opposed to the Davis Power Project favored the refuge proposal. Linda Cooper Elkinton and her husband Dave worked with WV Highlands Conservancy and many others, including student environmental groups at state universities, to encourage supporters to write letters of support during the official comment period. In May of 1978, USFWS held public hearings on the proposal.
In February of 1979 the Canaan Valley Alliance was formed. This was an alliance of environmental groups, including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, that wanted to work together to make the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge a reality. Its first president was Steve Bradley.
In June of 1979 the Final Environmental Impact Statement recommending a Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge was released by the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge. USFWS would wait for Carter’s task force, then results of lawsuits before making a final decision on this proposal.
The 1980s – The Waiting Game
Things slowed down as the lawsuits continued. Environmentalist groups, including WV Highlands Conservancy were appealing the District Court ruling that the DPP didn’t need a 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers because they had a FERC license. Environmentalist groups, including the WV Highlands Conservancy, were also suing FERC for issuing that license. Until 1986 the state of WV was part of the suing constituency. Then Governor Arch Moore pulled the state out of the legal challenge.
Meanwhile members of the Canaan Valley Alliance and Biologists from the USFWS would periodically give presentations urging conservation of Canaan Valley, a National Treasure. The first 3d map of the valley, and slide shows were developed for this work.
On another front, comprehensive land use planning for Canaan Valley was begun by area residents. Today, Canaan Valley is one of very few places in WV with zoning.
In February of 1987 the US Court of Appeals upheld the need for a 404 permit for the Davis Power Project. Allegheny Power Systems appealed this decision. In 1988 the US Supreme Court declined to review the decision of the lower court. The decision would stand. The Davis Power Project could not continue without the US Army Corps of Engineers permit under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. That permit was denied. Eighteen years after the first application for a license from the Federal Power Commission, the project was dead.
The Early 90s – Refuge Proposal Revisited
So now we knew what the valley wouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be a lake and a power plant. But would it be a refuge? Throughout this process it became clear from public involvement that whatever followed would have to provide opportunities for the local people to make a decent living. Would a refuge bring enough tourism?
In 1990 the Environmental Protection Agency was charged with convening a Canaan Valley Task Force comprised of local residents, representatives of several state and federal agencies, local government and environmental groups to consider alternatives for the valley. The task force raised questions and found ways to answer them. Several studies were done, including a study of the economic value of a National Wildlife Refuge in your community. The Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge Environmental Impact Study was revised and updated. Some lands in the southern part of the valley were excluded from this new project proposal so that economic development could occur there. Our Senators and Congressman wanted to be supportive, but would only do so if enough public support could be generated. A Station Management Plan was written to let people know how the new refuge would be managed. A Land Protection Plan outlined the priorities that the US Fish and Wildlife Service would use to guide their acquisition of land. Locals were assured that eminent domain would not be used to take their land. While many locals were still opposed, public support for the refuge proposal was growing.
Some who disagreed with the refuge proposal filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the USFWS from acquiring land. On August 4, 1994 that lawsuit was dismissed. The USFWS closed on its first Canaan Valley acquisition on August 11, 1994. This first purchase was an 86-acre tract on Freeland Road, which today is the most visited site on the refuge. West Virginia had its first refuge totally within the state border, and the nation had its 500th National Wildlife Refuge.
Managing the New Refuge
For many years the Station Management Plan and the Land Protection plan were the guiding documents for the new refuge. Still there were many in the community who objected to management strategies. Without knowing what lands would be acquired first, the Station Management Plan hadn’t been very specific. So how people anticipated management, and how actual management happened were not alike. And while the Land Protection Plan prioritized acquiring the power company land, that was not available to the USFWS early on, so other lands in the southern end of the valley were acquired first.
Public opinion of the new refuge was still quite contentious. But refuge friends were growing too. The Friends of the 500th was founded. Volunteer programs were begun.
In February of 2002, with the help of Senator Byrd and Congressman Mollohan, a deal was struck for the refuge to acquire most of the Canaan Valley lands held by the Allegheny Power System. Overnight the refuge quintupled in size, from a little more than 3000 acres to 15,245 acres, and the argument that the refuge was not living up to the priorities in the Land Protection Plan dissolved. In a nod to those who wanted more development in the valley, the Allegheny Power System retained some land, which was later sold to the highest bidder, a bridge builder from Charleston. He may build a home there, and build and sell a few more, but currently is working with the Nature Conservancy on land management there. The power company still retains a small parcel by the deteriorated bridge on the Old Timberline Road. Eminent domain has never been used to acquire land for the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
The WV Highlands Conservancy began working with the refuge and other partners on spruce restoration in the early 2000s. Cones were harvested and sent to tree nursery for propagation. Seedlings were and are brought back to the valley for planting by volunteers. To date, hundreds of volunteers have planted thousands of trees on the refuge and on the Monongahela National Forest. A collaborative, the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative was formed to coordinate these effort. The refuge and WV Highlands Conservancy are to this day active partners in this collaborative.
The 1997 Refuge Improvement Act calls for each refuge to develop a Comprehensive Conservation Plan, then update and revise it every 15 years. The plan for Canaan was begun about 2007. Public meetings and a public comment period started the process. The WV Highlands Conservancy participated fully. Meetings with subject matter experts were also held. A regional visitor services review team evaluated the current programs and made recommendations for the future. A draft plan was developed and released for public comment. Again public meetings were held, and again WV Highlands Conservancy fully participated. The plan was finalized in February of 2011 and has guided management since that time.
Elkinton, D.P. 2007. “Chapter 5: Saving the Promised Land,” Fighting to Protect the Highlands: The First Forty Years of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. pp 153-204.
Conversation with Jim Rawson, WVDNR Biologist, retired.
Hollis, R. 2017. “Happy 23rd Birthday Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.” Timberdoodle. August – September. pp 2-3.
Cooper, L. 2002. “Canaan Valley – A History of Activism,” Highland Voice. October. pp 12-14.