By Cindy Rank
What fun it was a couple of weeks ago to return to the first bit of land purchased as part of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge (CVWR) in Tucker County. And what a difference 23 years makes!
I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve not been back to the Freeland tract since it was purchased in August 1994, the end of my last term as President of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
My first visit back then was in the company of U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) personnel and WV Department of Natural Resources (WVDNR) folks and others who spent years working to protect the unique high elevation valley and wetland complex from development as a pumped storage hydroelectric facility.
Back then we carefully picked our way into the mysterious combination of bog and spruce trees shrouded in fog or low lying clouds typical for the Valley. With the purchase of the Freeland tract the idea of preserving the Valley as a National Wildlife Refuge had become reality.
Shortly after the Freeland tract was secured, dignitaries from all over gathered to listen to the late Senator Robert Byrd praise the many years of work by federal and state resource agencies, local officials, residents, business owners, and environmental groups who worked through difficult times to resolve differences concerning the many conflicting visions for the valley. With the October 1994 celebration the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge was officially dedicated as the nation’s 500th Refuge within the national system.
My recent visit was prompted by an unexpected opportunity to spend the weekend with friends who had rented a small cottage in the valley. Two of them were to attend Master Naturalist activities as part of the International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) at Canaan Valley.
This year the theme of the IMBD was Stopover Sites, which highlights the importance of wildlife refuges and other important natural areas like coasts and estuaries that provide resource-rich habitats. These sites give the birds energy to continue their journey, but can be converted to developed areas or agricultural fields if not protected.
We missed the Woodcock watch Friday night. …The birds and their human counterparts settled into more sane pursuits given the nasty weather.
But Saturday dawned with mere foggy showers and Lauren Merrill, gracious and knowledgeable AmeriCorps volunteer with the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, organized the morning walk while Rich Bailey, WV DNR Ornithologist, served as our guide and later gave a presentation to the Master Naturalists class. (Thanks to both for their time and knowledge — and thanks to Lauren for the photographs that appear with this article.)
We spent most of our time on the Freeland tract boardwalk that protects the sensitive ecology of the bog area and also allows access for people interested in the birds and diverse ecosystem of the Valley.
Bobolinks were plentiful and had returned to Canaan Valley the week of our visit. We were told the cheerful black and white bird is one of the migrants that relies heavily on stopover sites to fuel its 12,500 mile journey each year.
On a shorter stop in the Dolly Sods area we saw and heard more birds and marveled at gelatinous balls of spotted salamander egg masses and amazingly long stringy lengths of black egg sacks being deposited by American toads.
The numbers and names of the many birds we saw and heard were more important to the birders among us, but absorbing the whole experience, breathing in the morning chill and delighting in the many sights and sounds is what remains with me – especially against the background of the decades of struggle about what should become of this unique and beautiful valley (i.e. beginning in the 1950s when it’s reported that WVDNR and USFWS first set out to protect the area. See: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Canaan_Valley/about/history.html.)
From the planned pumped storage hydroelectric facility that would have flooded the valley and other development plans over the years, to multiple studies and legal challenges, to and through the many difficult Canaan Valley Task Force round table meetings where agencies, scientists, local folks, and concerned environmental groups aired their differences and finally arrived at an agreement to move forward with the idea of establishing a National Wildlife Refuge, this wonder of West Virginia – now close to some 17,000 acres – has held its own.
Note: Chapter 5 (Saving the Promised Land) of Dave Elkinton’s book Fighting to Protect the Highlands: the First Forty Years of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy discusses the Conservancy’s involvement in the struggle to oppose the Davis Power Project and support the creation of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.