We Have Wilderness; Now We Need to Work to Keep It Wilderness

By George E. Beetham Jr.

On October 13, 1746, Thomas Lewis, a surveyor from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia was a member of a survey team headed by Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas. The party’s mission was to survey the boundaries of Lord Fairfax’s large estate. Near the ridgeline of Allegheny Mountain they encountered a 16-foot high cliff. They managed to get to the top. What they found surprised them. It was a wide plateau, not a standard ridgeline. There were flat rocks and a marsh.

Farther across the plateau they encountered: 

“Laurel and Ivy as thick as they can grow whose branches growing of an extraordinary length are so well woven together that without cutting it away it would be impossible to force through them … from the beginning of the time we entered the swamp I did not see a plane big enough for a man to lie on or horse to stand…” 

Leaving the plateau, he noted in his journal,

“Never was any poor creature in such a condition as we were in, nor ever was a criminal more glad by having made his escape out of prison as we were to get rid of those accursed laurels.”

A little more than a hundred years later, not much had changed. David Hunter Strother, who wrote under the pen name Porte Crayon (French for pencil case), wrote in 1852:

“In Randolph County, Virginia, is a tract of country containing from seven to nine hundred square miles, entirely uninhabited, and so savage and inaccessible that it has rarely been penetrated even by the most adventurous. The settlers on its borders speak of it with a sort of dread, and regard it as an ill-omened region, filled with bears, panthers, impassable laurel-brakes, and dangerous precipices. Stories are told of hunters having ventured too far, becoming entangled, and perishing in its intricate labyrinths.”

The West Virginia Central and Pittsburg (sic) Railway up the valley of the North Branch of the Potomac River would change all that. It opened the wild region to logging and mining in the waning decades of the 19th Century. The timber was stripped, leaving only the small branches and shrubs that were not marketable. Forest fires swept the region, burning even the forest floor down to mineral soil. The resulting wasteland was deeded to the federal government to form the Monongahela National Forest.

Under Forest Service stewardship, the forest returned. Under the multiple use concept, the land was used for logging in some areas, pasture, some extractive mining, and recreation.

Move up a bit more than another hundred years from Strother and a bit more than 200 years from Lewis to September 3, 1964. that is when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. Once designated by Congress and signed by the president, federal wilderness areas are protected forever.

The Act defines wilderness:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Three acts since then have designated wilderness areas within the Monongahela National Forest, signed into law in 1975, 1983, and 2009. They are:

Big Draft Wilderness                             

Cranberry Wilderness

Dolly Sods Wilderness                              

Laurel Fork Wilderness

Otter Creek Wilderness

Roaring Plains West

Spice Run Wilderness

By far, Dolly Sods, both North and South, is the most popular. It is closest to major metropolitan areas on the Mid-Atlantic state: Pittsburgh, Washington, Baltimore, and Richmond. It is within a day’s drive of many other cities. Trailhead parking is at a premium on weekends, and nearly impossible on holiday weekends. Yet, within the wilderness area, it remains possible to find a measure of solitude.

In other wilderness areas solitude is even easier to find. In some cases it’s possible to wander for days without seeing another person. As they say in real estate, it’s location, location, location. For the areas that get the most use, location carries a price.

At this point I need to make clear that nothing in this story is meant to condemn anyone: wilderness users or the National Forest Service. There are certain realities at work. If this piece educates some, points to areas where action is needed, and improves things, it will serve its purpose. Wilderness is now our birthright: all of us.  We should get out and enjoy it, be a visitor who does not remain.

There are, of course, responsibilities involved here. We should not litter. We should camp well away from streams to avoid contamination from food scraps or human waste. We should pack out our trash. we should leave our campsite cleaner than we found it. We should not cut down live vegetation. There are more, of course. We call it wilderness etiquette. Hiking guides, Forest Service regulations, and wilderness rules posted at trailheads all cover these issues.

Despite all that, there are areas in wilderness where people are “loving nature to death.” on weekends campers tend to gather in popular spots. “Tent cities” go up. Long after the tents are struck and the owners gone, evidence of their presence remains. Cleared understory, stumps of trees cut for firewood, litter, improperly buried human waste … all point to conditions that detract from the nature of wilderness and most likely contribute to stream degradation. It does not have to be that way.

Shenandoah National Park, for one example, requires wilderness users to camp well away from streams and out of sight from trails. Enforcement rangers patrol the back country on foot to educate, and if necessary issue citations. The National Park Service is blessed with funding for more enforcement rangers than the National Forest Service. Still, more rigorous enforcement is possible. Monongahela Supervisor Clyde Thompson, interviewed for this story, noted that he can direct resources to areas where education and enforcement are needed.

“Everybody wants to camp by the creek,” he commented. That is where tent cities are located despite the fact that many acres of wilderness are unoccupied. “There are so many areas for campers to disperse, Thompson noted. That and the size of parties are issues that will draw attention. “We have resources to deal with that,” he added.

Another area of concern is maintenance. Particularly on Dolly Sods where boggy areas are common, but in other areas as well. Nor is that issue unique to the Monongahela. Anywhere people hike, wet spots get churned into mud pits by hundreds of hiking boots each year.

Jonathan Jessup, whose striking photographs of West Virginia natural lands are well known, offered some thoughts, as well as photographs of the situation.

“The actual problem is the poor and deteriorating state of many of the trails and campsites as noted. My opinion is that they are ‘very under maintained’ or ‘not maintained’.” he said.

“What I would like to see is that trail crews were sufficiently maintaining the Mon trails especially the poor state and damaged trails of which there are many. I would also like to see the USFS staff taking corrective and preventative measures which can greatly minimize and even restore user impacts.  This year in Colorado there was a miles long ‘riparian restoration zone’ along a formerly heavy use/impact area. The vegetation has rebounded there,” he continued.

He offered potential solutions:

“These corrective measures might include:

Creating riparian restoration areas where camping is prohibited

Rerouting trails away from sensitive areas

Designating campsites locations away from high use areas where they are less impactful

Placing stepping stones through bogs and muddy sections of trails to keep people on the trail

Closing the heavily used roads like FR75 (at least during busy weekends or permanently)

Moving the busier vehicle-accessible campgrounds away from the Wilderness areas in order to dislocate demand such as moving Red Creek Campground halfway down the mountain on FR19 towards Rt 28/55.

Encouraging campers to use hammocks instead of tents

In various ways, encourage people to minimize their use of the Wilderness”

(Not all of Jessup’s suggestions will meet with universal approval.)

Thompson responded to those concerns:

“We have to keep working on the problem of erosion,” he said. “We have some 854 miles of trail. We have been fairly successful in finding some funding help. We do have the ability to keep these funds (rather than passing them on to the General Fund). Some of these trails are just in the wrong place. We also have roads to maintain. I do have a plan for how this can be handled,” he said.

Helen McGinnis, whose tireless efforts helped facilitate the first West Virginia Wilderness Bill in 1975, raised a concern about vandalism, particularly to trail signs and message boards.

“I have been to the trailheads at the upper end of Otter Creek and the Mylius Trail many times.  When I first started going there, they had very nice signboards with various info for visitors tacked on.  The signboards may still be there, but the actual signs are tattered or even gone,” she said. “I recall last year there was a sign at the Mylius Trail head advising people not to camp right alongside Otter Creek, but away from it, because of the heavy camping use along the creek.  This fall the signs were no longer there, she commented.

Thompson agreed. “The signage thing has always been an issue.” he noted that trail signs also seem to draw a large number of bullet holes. In some cases, people steal signs, likely for souvenirs, he said.

Given limited budgets for the Forest Service as a whole, it is probably unrealistic to expect solutions to emerge overnight. Still, Thompson believes there are initiatives that can be pursued. He mentioned the idea of communities working with the Monongahela staff.

The Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI) has been working to plant red spruce and other high elevation native species in the highlands (The Highlands Conservancy has been very involved in that effort, spearheadded by Dave Saville). This science-based group is also removing invasive species from the Forest.

The Nature Conservancy acquired land on Dolly Sods North that is now part of the wilderness and purchased mineral rights for Forest lands. That conservancy was also instrumental in acquiring the Mower tract which is now a fairly mature forest formerly logged and mined.

Trout Unlimited, the Youth Conservation Corps, and other groups have helped.

“We do like the idea of communities,” Thompson said. It’s really all about the people. It’s the people’s forest,” he remarked.

Author’s Note: This article covers only a few of the issues with which Foresters will need to work on. There are many more than can be covered in any one story. We will continue to focus on these issues and work with the Monongahela National Forest staff to get answers and hopefully solutions.