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TrekEast Blog 41: Otter Creek Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Beauty Restrained

Mid-June 2011

Seeing a bear out in the wilds makes a good day great. First is the thrill of seeing a big powerful animal, then comes the satisfaction of knowing that the presence of this wide-ranging species speaks well of the land’s health. So my rambles in the northern Monongahela National Forest east of Elkins, including within Otter Creek Wilderness, were all the richer for a five-minute viewing of a young bear foraging along just 50 yards downslope from me. (Pictured left, a different cub, but worth sharing…thanks to Larry Master.)

 

Further reflection, though, reminded me that National Forests are not as safe as they should be for sensitive creatures like bears and otters and goshawks and rare amphibians, like the Cheat Mountain salamander, endemic to these mountains. I saw the bear while walking a long Forest Service dirt road after leaving the security of Otter Creek Wilderness. This road and others like it hem in the Wilderness and make our furred and feathered friends more vulnerable to poaching, roadkill, edge effects, and so on. Had I a gun and an opposite disposition yesterday on that walk, the young bear I watched might now be a mere trophy on a wall.

On the Monongahela and most other National Forests, unneeded back-country roads are compromising ecological integrity. These roads are expensive for taxpayers and dangerous for wildlife. Yet they are convenient for and popular with visitors, so closing them will be politically difficult. I believe it can and should be done, though, through a fair and gradual ecological austerity program. We should start identifying roads on public lands that are not essential to people’s homes or livelihoods, and phase out their maintenance over time, pointing people to recreational sites nearer the main roads. Rather than facilitating motorized access into the back-country, we should be allowing Nature to move closer to our towns and cities.

The Monongahela National Forest is also compromised by cow pastures (and as I type this blog, from my tent at 3200 feet on a mountainside, I hear cows bellowing below!). Again compassion and sensitivity must be shown, and alternatives found, but commercial livestock grazing on our public lands generally costs American tax-payers more than it nets them and nearly always undermines ecological health.

Apart from the surrounding roads (and, yes, I, too, used them for easy access) and pastures, my ramble in Otter Creek Wilderness was delightful. Oh – apart also from the stinging nettles! One of the trails I walked seems to have been forgotten by other hikers, so is overgrown; and wet areas were thick with nettles that had me nearly scratching through the skin of my shins.  Once out of nettle hell, I felt very much at home in the mix of northern hardwoods, hemlocks, and spruce, akin to the forests I walk back home in the Adirondacks. My swimming spot for the day was on Yellow Creek, where I felt like I could be in the Five Ponds Wilderness in the western Adirondacks. The stream flowed dark with tannins, through a boggy area lush with sphagnum moss and heath shrubs and bounded by spruce and pine trees. Making this little paradise irresistible for a plunge was the white sand beach! (pictured right) Maybe not quite a South Pacific atoll, the fine quartzite pebbles nonetheless afforded a refreshing dip in one of the loveliest settings in the Central Appalachians.

To gain vantage points from which to survey surrounding lands, I climbed Bickle and Stuart Knobs, both 4020 feet above sea level, both near or on the long ridges known as Cheat Mountain and Shavers Mountain, if I have interpreted West Virginia’s complex geography properly.  Bickle has an observation tower, affording grand views in all directions. To the west, much of the land is developed, especially around Elkins. To the north and south and especially the east, though, the forest looks largely intact. Unfortunately, views from atop Stuart are marred by various communication towers.

I would be remiss to leave the Cheat Mountain area without mentioning its eponymous salamander. The Cheat Mountain salamander is a rare endemic species, and one of scores of sensitive salamander species in the Appalachians. Indeed, my overlooking salamanders so far on this trek is scarcely short of scandalous, so rich and ecologically important is this group in the Southern and Central Appalachians. I just haven’t spent enough time following herpetologists or turning over logs and rocks. It’s not too late for me to find a hellbender, grandest of America’s salamanders at a stout 20 inches in length, for their range extends much of the length of the Appalachians. I did find a small salamander beneath a rock near Cheat Mountain, but I think it was the more common red-backed salamander; and I did help a couple red efts (terrestrial phase of the eastern newt) across roads here.

Surely this trek will not be complete, however, until we see a fuller array not just of the charismatic mega-fauna, vital governors of wild ecosystems, but also the enigmatic micro-flora & fauna – the little things that run the world, as the great Harvard entomologist EO Wilson put it. Whole wild ecosystems – as could be the Otter Creek Wilderness reconnected with wildlands throughout the Appalachians — will protect them all, from the insects salamanders eat to the birds who eat salamanders to the bobcats who eat birds to the deer who browse the birds’ nesting habitat to the cougars and wolves whose return will assure that such nesting habitat is no longer over-browsed.

Action needed: The US Forest Service needs to be convinced to start closing unnecessary roads, phasing out commercial grazing allotments and timber sales, and generally protecting our National Forests for their highest and best uses: as wildlife habitat, watershed protection, and climate stabilization.

For the Wild,

John

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