Places in Our Hearts

Most times we do not save mountains all on our own.  We have help.  But in many past instances, we did take the lead and offered a major portion of the work required to protect quite a few special places in the Highlands of West Virginia.

There’s a long list:  Cranberry, Dolly Sods, Blackwater, Otter Creek, Canaan Valley, the “Mon” Forest, Spruce Knob, Seneca Rocks, Laurel Fork, Spice Run, Roaring Plains, and Big Draft.  We—you and I—and all of us of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, nurtured them and wanted to secure their future.

One special place targeted in the early 1970’s was Otter Creek.   This wilderness area in Tucker County, rimmed by Shavers Mountain and McGowan Mountain, is comprised of 20,698 acres. It features tumbling waterfalls and 45 miles of challenging trails.  Early on, our volunteers hiked and explored the area, and shared their findings with government agencies and individuals and with anyone concerned.

More specifically, Vic Schmidt and others prepared an Otter Creek brochure [based on the work Helen McGinnis had done in, “A Dolly Sods Guide”.]    His booklet was a trail guide for Otter Creek with maps and had a bonus of recommendations regarding the protection of this place.  At a WVHC Mid-Winter Workshop, it was noted that—

“Most of the Board’s attention was devoted to Otter Creek.  The main program for Saturday afternoon was concerned with the Conservancy’s wilderness proposal for this area…vs. that of the Forest Service…” *

We pressed for the “multiple use concept” rather than the heavy emphasis on timbering which was prevalent then.   And we brought folks to Otter Creek for first-hand views of this forest gem.  In 1969, WVHC president Tom King wrote, in The Highlands Voice—

“I was almost overwhelmed by the wilderness beauty of the Otter Creek valley, it is an area to which I will return many times in the coming years.  Our hike, which was led by Sayre Rodman, attracted one-hundred-nineteen people including our Secretary of State, John D. Rockefeller, IV, and his wife…I hope that every member will lend his hand to help save the “Valley of Opportunity.”

In a subsequent column, King outlined the challenges of achieving wilderness status for Otter Creek.  He cited the Forest Service stance that 2/3 of the area should be devoted to timbering and the intention of Island Creek Coal Company to core drill 5 sites in the valley.   King said, “Remember the coal belongs to Island Creek, but the surface belongs to you!  You have as much right to the preservation of your property as they do to theirs.”  He pointed out that there were moves in Congress to promote wilderness bills, particularly by WV Congressman Ken Hechler.

Next, we held public meetings.

Then we went to court.  We sought, and obtained a temporary injunction against the core drilling.  The Forest Service appealed; the appeal was denied.  So, the case went back to court and, in 1971, Island Creek Coal won limited permission to drill.  “Limited!”  We proposed and gained the requirement that all travel in to the drill sites be accomplished not via any newly constructed roads, but by pack horses!  Helen McGinnis wrote—

“Judge Maxwell ordered lawyers…to get together to agree on a method of sampling that didn’t require roads.  Pack horses and helicopters were two alternatives…Island Creek announced that horses were the choice… [drill rigs] were taken apart and loaded onto a specially designed litter-shaped platform suspended between two draft horses…A team can carry 800 pounds…it takes nine trips to transport an entire rig…The ground is frequently rocky and the horses are constantly losing shoes…”

And then, the Charleston Gazette featured an article, “Otter Creek Prospecting Put on Shelf.”  The story ends with timbering and roads deflected, and the coal company deciding that mining was not feasible.

We won.  Bob Burrell was president and The Voice included his remark, “It is a rare day when the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy can claim an almost complete victory.”

I had intended to write about those other places listed too.  But, this Otter Creek episode captured me from the first instance of hearing of it.  [Also, I did really have an experience there, struggling to keep up with a Brooks Bird Club group on one of Dr. Jay Buckelew’s aptly nicknamed “Death Marches.”]

And truly, whether you read of them here or not, in the end, all those places are still at the heart of the work we continue to try to do.

See more on Otter Creek ]


This continues a set of columns focusing on our group’s 50th anniversary.  My writing of past events has been greatly helped by the work of David P. Elkinton, and his book, Fighting for the Highlands: The First Forty Years of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.