Fall Review: Lots of Smart People Saying Lots of Interesting Stuff

By John McFerrin

            The 2021 West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Fall Review was virtual this year because of covid but that didn’t stop us from having lots of interesting presentations.

            Dave Johnston started off with a little bit of Wilderness Act history, a little history of Dolly Sods, and a discussion of the work of the Wilderness Stewards program at Dolly Sods.  

            Dolly Sods has gone from being an area abused by timbering and forest fires to being one of the most popular Wilderness areas in the Eastern United States.  Dave talked about the route it took to get to this point and offered some ideas about what has led to the growth in the number of visitors.

            The Wilderness Stewards program is, at least in part, a response to the explosive growth.  It is a partnership between the United States Forest Service and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.  

            The program has two main components: education and data collection.  While it is easy to see growth in the number of visitors, the Forest Service does not have complete data on historical use.  The Wilderness Stewards program placed registration boxes at most of the trailheads.  It is maintaining the boxes and collecting the data, which it shares with the Forest Service.  

            The Wilderness Stewards program also provides trailhead greeters who meet visitors, offer guidance on trails to take, leave no trace practices, and other information that will both make the visit more satisfactory and make it less damaging to the Wilderness.

            Dave was followed by a presentation from the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI), made by Katy Barlow and Todd Miller.  They both work for The Nature Conservancy and are assigned to CASRI.

            CASRI’s vision is to restore Red Spruce to its former range.  Historically its range was somewhere between 500,000 and one million acres.  Now it is 50,000 acres.

            One of the barriers to achieving this vision is climate change.  The most pessimistic view of climate change is that the climate will change so much that red spruce habitat will disappear from the Central Appalachians.  

            CASRI is preparing to deal with this through diversity, both in the habitats it fosters and in the trees it plants.  The idea is that more diverse habitats and trees will be more resilient.  In a diverse landscape with genetically diverse plants, it is more likely that there will be variations that can adapt to a warmer climate.  While CASRI is known and often thought of as a tree planting organization, what they really want to do is restore ecosystems.

After the CASRI presentation, Tim Cronin came and brought us hope.  He is a fellow at the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law.

For most of its history, and certainly for the last century, West Virginia has been guided by the idea that this alternative energy stuff was all well and good but if we wanted to have a real economy we had to base it on coal or, more recently, natural gas.  The attitude was that birds and bunnies were sentimental fluff; coal kept the lights on.

His message was that it does not have to be that way and, in fact, we are already set on a course away from that.  Both First Energy (parent of Mon Power and Wheeling Power) and American Electric Power have committed themselves to carbon neutrality by 2050.  It is unlikely that this is soon enough to support an all out effort to slow climate change but that is still the direction we are headed.

His presentation was entirely economic.  From the data he and his organization have collected, it appears that an economy based on renewable energy will produce more jobs and electricity at a cheaper price than an economy based on coal and natural gas.  He kept trying to read the Zoom room and saying things such as “this group is probably more interested in the environmental aspects” but he was really all economics.  From cost to jobs to economic development, his data shows that renewable energy is the way to go.

Rick Webb talked about the Appalachian Blue Ridge Alliance Conservation Hub, particular its mapping system.  The Conservation Hub collects a plethora of information about areas and proposed projects and presents it on a series of layered maps.  By clicking on different factors that someone wanted to see, a person can make the map show that information.  If someone wants to see the Candy Darter’s historic range, the map can show that.  If someone wants to see the Candy Darter’s current range, the map can show that.  If someone wants to see an aerial photograph of a site, a click on a dot on the maps leads to an aerial photo of that spot.

Rick used these maps to talk about the Candy Darter.  He displayed a map of the Monongahela National Forest that showed all the proposed Forest Service projects.  The map also showed Candy Darter habitat.  Almost all of the habitat is on the National Forest.  How the Forest is managed will determine whether the Candy Darter survives.  With the sedimentation that will be the cumulative impact of all these projects, Rick is not optimistic.  We will see.

We topped off the presentations with the keynote address by Katie Fallon.  She is the author of books about the Cerulean Warbler and about vultures as well as numerous essays.  She was one of the founders of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds through research, education, and rehabilitation. 

            While birds are declining for many reasons, she focused her discussion on climate change.  Climate change often means loss of habitat.  It can mean range shift, with birds found at one latitude moving north as the climate changes.  This is particularly disastrous for birds which are already in northern climates; there is no place for their ranges to shift.  Climate change also affects food availability.  Birds have evolved with food that is available on a predictable schedule.  If climate change makes that food unavailable the results could be disastrous.

            Climate change could also lead to more fires and droughts which harm birds as well as more mosquito borne disease.

            Birds have always had the ability to adapt as conditions changed.  The difficulty with the climate change we are now experiencing is that the climate is changing faster than birds can adapt.

            Ms. Fallon ended her talk with a sort of tutorial on living a bird-friendly life, something that is more important now than ever when climate change is putting pressure on birds.  She included such things as drinking shade grown coffee, using less fertilizer, not mowing the lawn so closely, and supporting local and organic farms.

            But there’s more.  The day was not all stuffing our heads with information.  Between sessions Jackie Burns led us in a few yoga moves.  Since it was on Zoom, some of us followed along; some of us snuck away for a snack; some just stood up and walked around.  It all got us out of our chairs so it was all good.  During the dinner break we had a short videotaped message from Senator Joe Manchin.  He said he appreciated the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the work it did in preserving the scenic beauty of our state.