Connecting the Wild:  A Bridge to the Wilderness

By Randy Kessling

In a letter of August 20, 2022, Shane Jones, Ecosystems Staff Officer for the US Forest Service, asked the Highlands Conservancy if it would support its proposed acquisition of the Callen parcel, a 450 +/- acre parcel of land (the parcel) which is bounded on its West by the Laurel Fork South Wilderness in the vicinity of the Laural Forks’s Elk Run tributary in Randolph County, and on the East, by Cunningham Knob, a separate Forest Service holding. The parcel, and indeed most of its considerable surrounding private lands have been, and continue to be, used for open grazing of cattle.  Consequently, there is relatively little to no forest cover on much of this land.   

We asked Mr. Jones to elaborate in response to several questions that were posed by our Board members, in an effort to better understand what is being proposed. The following few paragraphs lay out a general description of the proposed management activities that the Forest Service plans to take if the transfer of ownership of the parcel is successful.     

With the parcel’s history of grazing and the limitation imposed by the underlying geology (unproductive sandstone (Pocono) geology), it is likely that grazing would continue under Forest Service management. Red spruce would be planted on the parcel with the intent of connecting the existing red spruce stands in the Wilderness areas with those on Cunningham Knob.  Part of the tree planting would likely involve “silvopasture” in which grazing and forestry practice are integrated.  It is not certain at this time what management prescription would apply to the parcel, but Management Prescription 4.1 is thought to be the most likely prescription since Cunningham Knob is MP 4.1. 

A major potential benefit of this acquisition is that it would allow the Forest Service to perform stream restoration work on the headwaters of Elk Run.  A good portion of Elk Run flows through the parcel on its way into the Wilderness and on through to Laurel Fork.  Due to the grazing use of the land, there is currently little to no riparian buffer surrounding Elk Run.  The stream restoration work could provide a riparian stream buffer which may improve the water quality in the stream by lowering water temperatures, reducing stream sedimentation and improving stream habitat.

There would be public access to the area, primarily for foot travel.  The parcel would provide access for travel between the Laurel Fork South Wilderness and Cunningham knob.  

With only a week, to consider the Forst Service’s request for our support, , the Conservancy concluded that even with some unknowns as to how the management of the parcel might unfold, the transfer of ownership of the parcel to the Forest Service would give the public a voice in the management of the parcel that it would not otherwise have.   

 On August 24, 2022, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy sent a letter to the Forest Supervisor of the Monongahela National Forest stating the Conservancy’s support for the acquisition of the parcel.  The letter enumerates the ways in which the proposed parcel acquisition and future management are consistent with the purposes of the Highlands Conservancy.  The letter further emphasizes the history of successful collaboration between the Conservancy and the Forest Service and expresses a wish for success in the Forest Service’s effort to “acquire the property for the people of the United States”

On a personal note, I hiked the area along the Wilderness boundary that defines the western edge of the Callen parcel with friends a number of years ago.  With its expansive open views and its comforting promise of solitude, it remains in my memory a remarkable place.