Learning Lessons

Our group, throughout its 50 years, has a long record of positive actions for the environment in West Virginia.  It is gratifying to read, in our history book, of those wins.

But, our progress over time has not been without a few fumbles.  We hope we’ve learned from our missteps and we consider it valuable to review our past in its entirety.

One of the first problems occurred quite soon after the organization of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.  In our 40 years history book, author Dave Elkinton sets the scene at Seneca Rocks in the late nineteen-sixties:

“Very early the protection and ultimate management of what became the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area [NRA] was the subject of heated Conservancy meetings. Many citizens, mostly from outside the immediate area, urged the establishment by Congress of the NRA within the Monongahela National Forest, as a means of protecting the NRA land from timber and other potential development threats.  No one, least of all the members of the fledgling Conservancy, understood that the establishment of the NRA would lead to massive property acquisition by eminent domain.  Local farmers, especially near Seneca Rocks, the nearby Germany Valley, and all along the North Branch and main stem of the South Branch of the Potomac, were faced with government condemnation in the name of protecting these natural areas.”

One error in this push for acquisition was that the Forest Service relied on inaccurate and inflated projections of the number of visitors to the site.  But, one of us—Bob Broughton—recognized this.  He further advised WVHC that the plans affected “…real people, people with emotions and aspirations just like any of the rest of us living in West Virginia…” and he eloquently defended the landowners who stood to lose their family homes.

In retrospect Elkinton reflected that there would come to be many other instances of overblown projections in our history of watchdogging developmental efforts here.  Secondly, he noted that there also came to be repeated cases in which there would be “developments that undervalued local residents’ love for their land…”

However, some in the Highlands Conservancy feared the loss of opportunity to define and protect the site and they pressed for acquisition.  We urged members to contact Congress in support of the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks NRA.  But, we freely offered the podium, at our Fall Review, to landowners who felt their voices had not been heard.  Not long after, our then-president, Bob Burrell, pointed out in The Highlands Voice that gubernatorial candidate Jim Sprouse was found to have been part of an “illegal land dealing company that bought up much of the land in the proposed Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks area and then made a killing in profits reselling the land to the Forest Service.”

At our Fall Review the following year, landowners again spoke of “the bumbling inefficiency” of the Forest Service in this matter.  The local service superintendent was in attendance and had little to say in justification. In our own organization’s defense, we did publish information several times regarding the “inadequacy of the compensation laws and procedures.”  In wrapping up the story, most readers will know that the NRA was established; not everyone will have previously known at what cost.

The main lesson learned was clear communication.  We can take some comfort in our part in allowing more folks to speak out.  Two other lessons were that attention to details is vital, and that areas already belonging to the public are perhaps the fittest for preservation ideas.

This story has always gripped my imagination and especially because of my friend Carol. We had taught in adjoining classrooms for several years before I found that she was from Seneca Rocks.  Really, right from the Rocks.  Her family owned the land and operated a small souvenir shop there.  We were still co-workers when I became active in the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and learned about our organization’s somewhat bumbled attempts at preservation.  Carol is not reproachful, but does speak warmly of her wonderful childhood home and she remembers that it was painful for her family to relinquish their home.  It’s just ironic to me that she and I would share a connection to this beautiful Mountain State landmark, but in different ways.

We are always learning.