Toward a New Central Park of the Appalachians: High Allegheny National Park
Around the Summer Solstice of 2011
Bat photos courtesy of Larry Master (masterimages.org).
Friends of Blackwater Canyon is a tough little group with a big mission: to save and restore the natural and cultural heritage of the mountains of West Virginia. Together with the Center for Biological Diversity, Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, Wild South, and Wilderness Society (all of whom we’ve also talked with along this trek), Friends of Blackwater recently won a lawsuit to restore protection under the federal Endangered Species Act of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel. This adorable little glider is found here in a disjunct southern population in the highlands of West Virginia and adjacent Virginia. Again with the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of Blackwater is also fighting to save the Indiana and Virginia big-eared and little brown and other bats from the exotic pathogen that causes white-nosed syndrome, (pictured right) a plague that is decimating bat populations across the East, in what amounts to a biological meltdown. The Friends are also stalwart defenders of the rare endemic Cheat Mountain salamander and the more widespread but vulnerable hellbender – our country’s stoutest amphibian.
Of course, Friends of Blackwater also defends its namesake river, the Blackwater being a dashing watercourse that drains northward along the sprawling high boggy Canaan Valley and plunges over fearsome waterfalls and rushes westward into a craggy canyon before calming down and joining the Cheat River, and thence the Ohio River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Blackwater River is still wild and pure near its headwaters but is sullied by acid mine drainage – which Friends of Blackwater is fighting to get cleaned up — through its North Fork. Friends are also working to get the southern part of the canyon, much of which is privately owned and threatened by logging, to be purchased by land trusts or conservation agencies, from a land-owner who is interested in selling but wants too much money.
Most ambitiously, though, Friends of Blackwater and kindred groups, including RESTORE: The North Woods through its National Parks campaign, are working to get the many public lands in northeastern West Virginia combined into a large High Allegheny National Park. This is how the Eastern Wildway will be rebuilt: grassroots conservationists and national environmental groups and Nature lovers of all sorts uniting to save our imperiled neighbors, like “Ginny” the flying squirrel and “Lucy” the little brown bat, and piecing back together their habitats, into wildlands complexes centered around big wild cores, of which the High Allegheny National Park would be an outstanding example. Its exact dimensions remain to be worked out, but it could easily surpass a half million acres and would probably be the biggest park in the Central Appalachians, complementing and surpassing in size Shenandoah National Park east of here in Virginia. (As with RESTORE’s proposal for a grand Maine Woods National Park, some of the land would probably actually be designated National Preserve, to allow for continued hunting.)
So far my rambles here confirm the park quality of northern West Virginia mountains and valleys. Blackwater Falls and Canyon, in particular, are geological and biological wonders, with enough topography to suit rare plants and extreme paddlers alike. In welcome contrast, walking the gentle ground in Canaan Valley and on Canaan Mountain, I almost feel like I’ve skipped half the Appalachian chain and gone straight to northern Maine, with extensive peatlands and tannin-stained waters flowing from them, bounded by spruce/fir forests. Moreover, towns around the proposed park like Davis, Thomas, and Elkins cater to outdoor adventurers, with gear shops, boat outfitters, and delicious places to regain calories and caffeine, like Maggy’s in Elkins and Hellbenders Burrito and Hypno-Coffee in Davis, as well as offices of the leading conservation groups like Friends of Blackwater, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy.
Wildlife is abundant in this region, though not yet in a way that would draw people as do Yellowstone’s wolves and bison and elk and bears. Elk, bison, wolves, and cougar were long ago extirpated, and brook trout have been lost from many streams due to logging, acid rain, and acid mine drainage. Friends of Blackwater is working to clean up the streams so they can again support native trout. The Cougar Rewilding Foundation (about which I will write more later) is educating residents on the need to restore top predators. I’ve been noticing on walks through hardwood forests here many pretty but probably unnatural fern glades, where the understory is almost entirely hay-scented or bracken fern, with little tree regeneration and few wildflowers. This probably indicates over-browsing by deer, which hungrily eat tree saplings and herbs, but seldom the ferns.
So as we work to build support for this grand park in the Central Appalachians, we also need to build support for reintroduction of missing species, especially the carnivores. Wolves and cougars and elk and bison – along with secure populations of flying squirrels and bats and salamanders — in West Virginia’s mountains and valleys would attract more wildlife watchers and enhance the health and diversity of the forests, wetlands, and streams.
I’m just a few days into an exciting week here in the proposed High Allegheny National Park, and will save further observations till later; but before closing, I want to thank again the many great individuals, conservation groups, and businesses who have made possible these rambles through a dream we call the Eastern Wildway. I was smitten with gratitude yesterday as I strode my 4000th mile of the trek and looked far ahead with my binoculars and saw another black bear! I know and am eternally grateful that scores of friends and colleagues have given generously to support the Eastern Ancient Forest fund created in my mother’s honor and TrekEast, which aims to help stitch back together our eastern wildlands, including remnants of original forest. We may not thank you often enough, but please know that you are crucial parts of this trek and of the much larger effort to restore the East’s natural heritage, species by species, park by park, corridor by corridor, community by community.
How to help even more:
- Talk up the proposed High Allegheny National Park & Preserve.
- Be a booster also for wolf and cougar recovery.
- Conversing with neighbors, chatting at coffee shops and bars, talking to elected officials, inviting guest conservationists to speak at local clubs, and writing letters to newspapers are good ways to quietly incite conspiracies to save the wild.
- Go to www.saveblackwater.org for more specific ideas on the proposed park.
- Also go to www.biologicaldiversity.org to assist the Center’s efforts to stop the spread of white-nosed syndrome and its many other vital efforts to save and restore endangered species.
For the Wild,