The Blackwater Canyon Cut

Whoís Trees are They, Anyway?

By Jim Sconyers

In the controversy over the future of the Blackwater Canyon, some have contended that the issue is private property rights. We donít see it that way. The real issue is stewardship of natural resources with inestimable value for all the people - for our families, for our future. But letís give the property rights issue a momentís consideration, just for the sake of argument.

A quick reprise of the history of the situation is in order. Blackwater Canyon, after long years of ownership by Allegheny Power, was sold last year. After less than one dayís ownership, the first buyer turned around and sold the Canyon to Allegheny Wood Products. Despite widespread surprise and concern because of the Canyonís unparalleled recreation and wildlife values, Allegheny Wood Products announced its intention to log the Canyon. The company did, in fact, begin limited logging in the lower Canyon last fall.

Extremists maintain that the Canyon belongs to the company, and they have the right to do whatever they wish there. This argument is wrong on one, or probably both, counts. We all know that nobody, whether individual or corporate, is free to "do whatever they want." In America, we all have both rights and responsibilities. You and I are not free to act above or beyond the law, which is designed to balance individual rights and the good of society. We canít harm others, take what isnít ours, create public nuisances, and so on. The other point Ė who actually owns the Blackwater Canyon Ė is also under examination. The fact of the matter is that the apparent present owner, Allegheny Wood Products, may have been the victim of misinformation or faulty judgment.

Put the situation in terms an average homeowner can understand. You are interested in buying a home. You visit several and decide to make an offer on the one you decide is for you. As a prudent person, you have several checks made Ė Is the structure sound? Is the house free of termites and pests? And, very important, is the title clear? Home buyers are not as a rule wealthy, and are cautious so that their largest lifetime investment is a safe and secure one. Suppose you find that the title is not, in fact, clear. Yet for some reason you go ahead and buy the property. You move in, and right away decide to remodel. Now comes the "real" owner, asserting his or her claim as you knew they might.

Now you are in the position of having altered and possibly damaged someone elseís home. What should you have done? Prudence would demand that you wait for the conflicting claims to be settled before taking action that causes possible harm to what may actually belong to someone else.

Allegheny Power and Allegheny Wood Products are in a position uncomfortably similar to that of the home buyer described above.

Look at the Tucker County deed book, and youíll find a notice of lis pendens Ė simply put, a notice that legal action that may affect the title is pending. The problem is that West Virginia law forbids a public utility like Allegheny Power from selling real estate like the Blackwater Canyon unless approval is first obtained from the Public Service Commission. Allegheny Power didnít get this approval.

The West Virginia Supreme Court has set October 7 to decide whether the sale of the Canyon was legal. With this kind of question hanging over the Canyon, what would the prudent corporate citizen do? Wait until ownership is cleared up once and for all? Or plunge ahead and "remodel" the Canyon with chainsaw and bulldozer? After all, weíve all heard the old joke about how itís easier to ask for forgiveness afterwards than to get approval beforehand!

Yet the supposed new owner chose to go right ahead with logging. Never mind that they may not even be the rightful owners of the property! Suppose the Court finds that the sale was, indeed, illegal. Just try to imagine the tangled legal aftermath as lawyers and judges wrestle with the question of what to do about a company that should have known better than to timber someone elseís property.

Prudence - maybe thatís just for average citizens like you and me.

We still feel the basic issue is protection of a priceless natural resource for our families, for our future. Even so, the property issues, too, are compelling.