Supporting the Wilderness Climate

The First Season of Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards

Part 2: Dolly Sods Becomes a Wilderness

By Dave Johnston

In the first part of this article (The Highlands Voice, December, 2081), which is based on the presentation I made at the WVHC Fall Review, we looked at the provisions of the Wilderness Act of 1964 as they relate to the values of “wilderness character”, and how they are applied to the Dolly Sods Wilderness. In this second part I want to look at how the Dolly Sods Wilderness was officially created under those principles, and start looking at how wilderness designation has protected Dolly Sods. In a future article I’ll discuss the current threats to the wilderness character of Dolly Sods, how the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards responded to those threats, what we have learned from our first season, and what is planned for the future.

The Origin of Dolly Sods Wilderness

West Virginia is fortunate to have eight congressionally-designated wilderness areas. But it almost didn’t come to be. After the original Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, a philosophy began to take hold that only “pristine” natural areas, that had not experienced the effects of human activity, should be eligible for wilderness designation. As we have seen, there is nothing in the Wilderness Act to support this, and it in fact mentions historical significance as a basis for wilderness character. Nevertheless, proponents of this “purity policy”, notably the US Forest Service, contended that this meant that essentially no areas in the eastern US could be considered for wilderness. 

Fortunately this philosophy was decidedly repudiated when Congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Act in 1974. This designated 16 new wilderness areas in the east, including Dolly Sods and Otter Creek. 

The successful designation of these first two wildernesses in West Virginia was due in no small part of the efforts of WVHC, then a fledgling organization just starting to take on big issues. You can read in great detail about the many twists and turns it took to realize this outcome in Fighting to Protect the Highlands, the history of the first 40 years of WVHC, available in the website Store. 

A key part of this was the development of a “Wilderness Proposal and Hiking Guide” for both Dolly Sods and Otter Creek by Helen McGinnis and Bruce Sundquist, published by WVHC in 1969. The proposal contains a detailed analysis of the history of Dolly Sods and how that and its inherent natural features made it a prime candidate for wilderness designation. The proposal uncannily anticipates and addresses the objections that would be raised and outlines the threats to it should it not be protected. The proposed boundaries of the wilderness almost exactly match the area that was actually designated several years later.

Bruce Sundquist has passed on, but Helen McGinnis is still an active WVHC member. She graciously provided me with a copy of the 1971 edition of the Proposal and Guide, which you can now download in scanned PDF form from the WVHC website at The perspective this provides on the background and rationale for Dolly Sods Wilderness is fascinating, and much of it is relevant and instructive even today. I’d encourage you to read it.

The original Dolly Sods Wilderness included the lower part of the Red Creek drainage above Laneville, but not the upper watershed to the north, which remained in private hands. Given the importance of the watershed to the health of the wilderness, protecting this land was a high priority. In 1973 The Nature Conservancy purchased most of the watershed and donated it to Monongahela National Forest. This land, which became known as Dolly Sods North, was added to the Dolly Sods Scenic Area, but was not yet wilderness. 

In the 2000s another push was made to increase the amount of wilderness set aside, especially in the eastern US. Again WVHC played an active role in this, this time spearheaded by Dave Saville. This culminated in 2009 with congressional action to expand Dolly Sods Wilderness to include Dolly Sods North, as well as designation of a new wilderness in Roaring Plains, just to the south of Dolly Sods. 

However, one piece of the puzzle remains missing even today. The last remaining significant part of the Red Creek watershed, Dobbin Slashings Bog, a 1200 acre wetland and surrounding slopes which is the source of Red Creek, remains on private property adjacent to the northwest edge of Dolly Sods. Anything that happens in Dobbin Slashings affects the wilderness downstream. The potential for development of that area or of other human interventions affecting the natural processes of the ecosystem are a present threat to the wilderness character of Dolly Sods.

The Value of Dolly Sods Wilderness

The designation of Dolly Sods as wilderness avoided or mitigated several potential threats. The Forest Service had already established a “Dolly Sods Scenic Area”, but this did not protect it from all forms of human intervention.  As the forests recovered from the clearcutting and bombing, more areas would produce marketable timber. There were already two timber sales within the Scenic Area that were slated for cutting, which were rendered moot by the wilderness designation.

Marginally valuable coal exists under Dolly Sods, part of the same formation that was mined in the Stony River area just north of Dolly Sods. As development (both actual and proposed) increased in the surrounding area, it would become more economically viable to extract that coal. The Scenic Area designation would probably have prevented surface mining, but deep mining would have been a possibility. Purchase of the mineral rights by The Nature Conservancy and inclusion of them in the wilderness package headed off that potential threat.

At the time the Davis Power Project, which would have flooded Dobbin Slashings as well as a large part of Canaan Valley, was just being proposed. Although it took decades for the project to finally be abandoned, the potential impact on a wilderness downstream complicated the planning for this and contributed to its demise.

Two major parkways had been proposed to pass through the area, and proposed routing took them through or on the edge of the Dolly Sods. The wilderness designation helped prevent the impact of traffic, roadside development, and disturbance of natural patterns of vegetation, wildlife and water that would have accompanied such development. 

Even well-intentioned but potentially disruptive human interventions were limited and subject to more scrutiny. Attempts at reforestation through planting of spruce and, in some cases, non-indigenous species were halted in favor of allowing natural regeneration. Attempts to counteract ongoing human impacts, including acid rain deposition, would need to be examined and such “trammeling” justified as a minimum requirement to maintain natural conditions. 

Designation of Dolly Sods as a wilderness helped establish a precedent for the viability of eastern wilderness in areas that are relatively small, on previously-disturbed land, and subject to pressures for development and other impacts within and surrounding the natural area. In many ways Dolly Sods serves as a laboratory for understanding how the advance of civilization can be balanced against the need – for both humans and natural inhabitants – for preservation of refuges where human manipulations are minimized and an experience of wilderness character can be pursued.

But…having overcome the “old school” challenges of extractive industry and intrusive development, Dolly Sods is now faced with new challenges of the modern world, some of which are the direct consequences of its own success. In the next installment we will examine those and how we as conservationists can respond to them.

Meanwhile, to learn more about the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards and to join up, go to

Become a Wilderness Steward

Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards do not need to have any special experience or expertise. There is no specific time commitment required; some people may live close and be available more often, but even those who only visit occasionally are welcome to participate as their schedule allows. We recommend and encourage all volunteers, especially the Trailhead Stewards, to take two online courses on the basics of the Wilderness Act and Leave No Trace awareness. Volunteers will be provided with inperson training by the Forest Service and resources to use at the trailheads. WVHC will provide each volunteer with a WVHC T-shirt and cap to help identify them to visitors.

For more information and to sign up online as a Wilderness Steward, go to, or contact Dave Johnston at

Dolly Sods Designated as LNT “Hot Spot”

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (LNT) has announced that the Dolly Sods Wilderness has been designated as one of its 2022 Hot Spots, and will devote special attention and resources to the impacts which threaten its natural character. 

There has been a steady rise in visitation at Dolly Sods over the past decade, with a significant spike during the pandemic. This had led to significant impact on and degradation of the wilderness character of Dolly Sods. The LNT organization will coordinate with the Monongahela National Forest and WVHC’s Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards to plan training, workshops and community events to address specific issues related to the effects of high visitor use. These include the proliferation and impact of campsites, vegetation loss, and appropriate backcountry practices. 

We will share more information and announcements of events as plans develop.