Notes on the Creation of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy

Recalling the First Highlands Review atop Spruce Knob

By Rupert Cutler

In the late 1960s, as an outcome of the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, skepticism ran high regarding the possibility of Congress making tracts of roadless back country in the eastern national forests official units of the National Wilderness Preservation System. After all, so the theory ran, ninety-nine percent of the eastern national forests is second- or third-growth timber (classic wilderness is "virgin" old growth), and the remnant roadless areas in the eastern forests are relatively tiny compared to the typical western wilderness areas like the Bob Marshall (so it is hard to get completely away from the sights, sounds, and smells of civilization in them).

Even the executive director of The Wilderness Society at that time, Stuart Brandborg, tacitly agreed with U.S. Forest Service wilderness staff director Bill Worf (a fellow westerner) that such little eastern areas as Rich Hole on the George Washington National Forest were not comparable with the "real" wilderness in their minds’ eyes. This despite the fact that the "instant" wilderness system created by passage of the Wilderness Act included the relatively small, second-growth Great Gulf (NH) and Shining Rock and Linville Gorge (NC) areas, setting a precedent for the inclusion of such areas in the system. [Item: When, as a Wilderness Society staff member, I submitted a request for reimbursement of my expenses for a wilderness reconnaissance trip into the George Washington National Forest in northern Virginia to Brandborg, he rejected my reimbursement request with the comment that The Wilderness Society had no interest in that forest because it would never have designated wilderness areas. Now Virginia boasts 16 wilderness areas totaling 166,641 acres in its national park and national forests, and a bill creating two more areas is pending before Congress.]

It was against this background and despite this prevailing negative attitude in high places that a campaign to protect the "de facto" wilderness areas of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia was initiated in the late 1960s. This grassroots movement soon led to the formation of an organization to mobilize the troops and carry the message: the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

There was urgency to this campaign because many forces were at work to degrade the natural environment and ecological uniqueness of the West Virginia Highlands and the West Virginia tributaries of the Potomac River. Among them were the construction by the Forest Service of a very long Highlands Scenic Highway (seen by some as West Virginia’s answer to Virginia’s Skyline Drive/Blue Ridge Parkway), construction of Royal Gorge Dam on the headwaters of the Potomac by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, construction by the Appalachian Regional Commission of a network of new highways to be reamed through that steep mountain country and a stepped-up program of timber sales on the Monongahela National Forest. (The objections by sportsmen to the clear-cutting of large tracts of hardwood habitat on the Monongahela Forest eventually led to the litigation filed by the Izaak Walton League that stopped eastern national forest timber sales until the National Forest Management Act introduced by Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia passed the Congress in 1976.)

That a new organized voice of outspoken citizen opposition to the wholesale degradation of the West Virginia Highlands, with political clout, was needed was the conclusion arrived at in 1967 by a small group of backpacking and whitewater canoeing buddies from a Highlands recreational user region that included Richmond, VA, Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh, PA as well as Charleston, Bridgeport and other communities in West Virginia. They met accidentally, initially, at trailhead parking lots and high country overlook lunch clearings in places like Spruce Knob, Seneca Creek, Dolly Sods, Otter Creek, the Cranberry Back Country, and the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. These enthusiasts including Lou Greathouse and Lee Maynard of Charleston, Bob Broughton of Pittsburgh, Lucille and Bob Harrigan of Glen Echo, MD, myself, and others whose names I’ve forgotten. We decided to create a new organization dedicated to the protection of the West Virginia back country we loved. Dr. Thomas E. King of Bridgeport, WV, was elected the new group’s first president.

I have no record now, 32 years later, of the details of the process of organizational establishment. However, I do recall with great clarity the high points of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s first annual Highlands Weekend Review on Spruce Knob, which I believe took place in July of 1968. Then as now, we created a diverse weekend program of outdoor recreational events ranging from rock-climbing and whitewater canoeing to hiking, photography, and nature study, with everyone involved expected to assemble on Saturday evening on Spruce Knob for a chicken barbecue dinner and a "come-to-Jesus" meeting in a church revival tent on the mountaintop that night.

Several hundred tired but enthusiastic conservationists packed the old tent as a light rain pattered on the canvas. Arrayed across the back of the speakers’ platform were a panel of special guests – our target audience – that included the Supervisor of the Monongahela National Forest Supervisor, Ephe Oliver; the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Stewart Udall; and the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. Senate, Robert Byrd. Looking them in the face were hundreds of angry constituents. As the program of several speakers, representing various interests and localities, slowly but surely built the case for the protection of the region’s unique natural values, the audience warmed to the opportunity to send those leaders a message.

I was honored to serve as anchorman for the panel of speakers. I was asked to represent the non-West Virginians who came hundreds of miles from far-away cities to partake of the wilderness experience offered by the West Virginia Highlands. As I enumerated one proposed construction horror after another, in a call-and-response manner modeled after the speeches of the late Hubert Humphrey, the tent rocked with an enthusiastic response. The intended audience of people in high places could not have missed the message: Save our Highlands!

That day was long ago but will remain evergreen in my memory as one of the high points in my conservation career. I am very pleased that our successors at the helm of and in the membership of, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy are carrying on the good fight and winning important battles! Keep up the good work!

Rupert Cutler has worn many hats in his lifetime, most of which were directly involving environmental protection. He currently lives in Roanoke, VA.