Section Menu

TrekEast Blog 43: Wading West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness

Half Sodden in Dolly Sods

Late June 2011

Decades ago when my folks returned from a discouragingly wet camping trip in the Dolly Sods backcountry of northern West Virginia, I asked them, who is Dolly and why is she sodden?  They’d met no Dolly but had sodden boots the whole trip; and I still don’t know who Dolly was, but it’s easy to see why she was wet, if not soused. 

The highlands of West Virginia catch moisture blowing southeast off the Great Lakes, so their western front, on the Eastern Continental Divide, including Canaan Valley and mountains around it such as those in Dolly Sods, get rain many days of the year and as much snow some winters as famously snowy regions, like the Adirondacks where I live, typically receive.  Much of the time up here, where elevations average more than 3,000 feet (don’t laugh Westerners; the East packs a lot of diversity into relatively small elevation changes!), you feel like you’re walking on a sponge, feet wet, rivulets running everywhere, bogs bounded by spruces making you feel like you are in northern Maine.

Indeed, Dolly Sods is among the higher and wetter parts of the proposed High Allegheny National Park in West Virginia.  Most of the Dolly Sods area enjoys at least partial protection, as Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Monongahela National Forest.  Part of the National Forest land enjoys additional protection as the Dolly Sods Wilderness, which at about 17,000 acres is considerably smaller than it could and should be.  Once again, long Forest Service roads penetrate the backcountry, at high economic and ecological costs.  Consolidating the many public lands in this area into one grand Allegheny National Park would not necessarily mean any road closures, but it would add to the acreage protected from logging and enlarge the sanctuaries for wildlife. 

Among the people I’ve encountered on my rambles in Monongahela National Forest are bear hunters running their hounds.  Unkindly, in my view, the Forest Service and state game officials allow not just the shooting of many of this important and sensitive species, Ursus americanus, each autumn, but also, in months prior to the actual hunt, harassment of bears by hounds.   Pre-season hunters load their trucks with their chase dogs, drive up into the mountains, radio-collar the hounds and let them loose, and track them by radio-telemetry as they pursue the bruins.  This is surely not subsistence hunting, as was traditionally practiced in these parts; nor is it sport, in my opinion, but needless harassment.  The only justification for this practice I can imagine is that it may keep the bears fearful of people, which may reduce the likelihood of bear/human conflicts; but I think the best way to minimize these conflicts is to remind people to take common sense precautions, like not putting out trash or birdfeeders if they live in bear habitat, and hanging their food while camping (which I’m doing with gymnastic care here in Dolly Sods).

Another wildlife management issue to mention is the overpopulation of and thus over-browsing by white-tail deer.  (Pictured right, photo courtesy of Larry Master.Deer are native to most of the East and are among our fleetest and most elegant animals.  Because we’ve eliminated their predators, however, chiefly wolves and cougar, and because game officials continue to manage for big deer herds (such as by creating early succession habitat – logging – and holding antler-only deer hunts), they have become unnaturally and dangerously abundant across much of the East.  In parts of the Central Appalachians and elsewhere, deer are degrading the forest by browsing down tree saplings and wildflowers.  I’ve walked here past many fern glades that look lovely – carpets of hay-scented and bracken fern beneath hardwood canopies – but are biologically impoverished.  There should be trees of all ages, young and old, plus abundant herbs and forbs in these woods, not just a two-foot-high layer of ferns beneath a 50-foot-high canopy of maples and beeches.  The answer, of course, is to bring back the predators.  A full suite of carnivores, which here would include cougar, bobcat, gray and/or red wolf, coyote, fisher, and bear (though of these, only cougar and wolf would prey on deer enough to control their numbers) would restore balance to the forest.

Forth to the rocky summit:  Hopping boulder to boulder along the high ridge of Cabin Mountain felt much like climbing in the Adirondack High Peaks or New Hampshire’s White Mountains, with rock, conifer, and heath creating an open boreal beauty.  Vistas east and south showed a largely intact forest landscape punctuated with peatlands.

On a longer hike the next day, I experienced more of Dolly Sods’ many faces: northern mixed deciduous/conifer forest, heath shrublands, steep mossy boulder fields, rivulets all around, streams too big to ford dry, spruce forest, grassy meadow, aspen grove, and laurel-blooming rocky summit ridges.  I did not see any beaver meadows, though, and that worries me.  Surely there are plenty of hardwoods along the streams to support beaver families.  What about otter and mink?  Were they eliminated earlier in history, and have they returned yet?

As in many eastern Wilderness Areas, if you look closely, you find signs of past industrial exploitation. In Dolly Sods, some of the trails follow old logging roads or even an old railroad bed or two.  A wilderness purist could find this depressing; I prefer to see it as a sign of the powerful resilience of Nature:  Some places in the East that once were severely exploited have recovered so well since man’s machinations ended, that they now look, feel, and most importantly function as real wilderness.  Photosynthesis is a powerful force; give enough land enough time to heal, and the results will be wild and wonderful.

Ongoing Action:

  • Support the Friends of Blackwater Canyon’s efforts to expand natural and cultural preservation in this area by creating a large High Allegheny National Park (saveblackwater.org). 
  • Pressure the US Forest Service to close unneeded backcountry roads and expand Wilderness Areas. 
  • Help 350.org get strong carbon emission reductions approved, so the spruce forests of West Virginia are not lost to global overheating. 
  • Assist the Center for Biological Diversity’s many efforts on behalf of imperiled species in this and other regions (biologicaldiversity.org).

For the Wild,

John

 

Tell us what you think! Note: All comments are moderated before appearing here.