Scrambling Up Rocks and Oaks East of the Divide
Late June 2011
North America’s temperate forests are remarkably oaky. When I hiked and biked over Spruce Knob, the top of West Virginia (4,863’), I went from waters that drained to the Gulf of Mexico via the Cheat and Ohio and Mississippi Rivers east to waters that drained to the Atlantic Ocean via the Potomac River, and from moist northern hardwood and spruce forests down to oak-hickory forests in the rain shadow of the Allegheny Mountains. Dropping 2,500 feet in ten miles and then riding north with a tailwind down the valley of the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River made for some of the easiest mileage of this trip but also some of the most dramatic.
Seneca Rocks is world-famous for its great climbing and scenery and is also great habitat for falcons, ravens, swallows, snakes, and other creatures that thrive in topographically rich areas. The long ridge on which the sandstone formations known as Seneca Rocks occur (pictured left and bottom), North Fork Mountain, has an almost alpine grandeur, with its lofty crags, talus fields beneath them, and distant vistas across valleys of the North and South Forks of the South Branch Potomac River. This northeastern part of the Monongahela National Forest, too, would be an excellent part of a much larger High Allegheny National Park, as proposed by Friends of Blackwater (saveblackwater.org; park proposal discussed two blogs ago).
I spent a day and a half, in splendidly sunny brisk weather, walking the North Fork Mountain trail and finding small crags to traverse and scramble up (where safe to do so without rope or spotter). Expansive views showed farms and houses in the valleys below, but extensive forest to the east and more so westward to the Allegheny Front, including the Dolly Sods Wilderness, which I’d hiked a few days before. North Fork Mountain affords homes to timber rattlesnakes, peregrine falcons, and several rare plant species, though if I was seeing rare species, I was not sharp enough to know it. My nose was sharp enough, though, to nearly ground me twice from the sudden stench of vulture roosts in the rock overhangs.
Whether roads in the valleys below are blocking wildlife movement is a question to study; I suspect these fairly heavily used roads at least slow or dissuade some animals from crossing. My guess is bears and other large mammals occasionally cross the valley roads at night; salamanders and other amphibians and reptiles may be more directly harmed. As with most rural roads, they should be made more permeable to wildlife movement. This road work can reduce the tragedy of roadkill, wildlife and human; provide useful jobs; and make our infrastructure more durable in the face of climate volatility. Road porosity and durability can be enhanced with animal underpasses and overpasses at key crossing points, fish-friendly culverts, better signs and driver education, and lower speed limits, especially at night. Roads and motor vehicles pose threats to wildlife and people not just here, of course, but throughout the Central Appalachians and beyond.
Before reluctantly leaving West Virginia – “wild and wonderful” indeed, but not as wild as bears and panthers would prefer — I should more fully acknowledge another growing threat to the state’s great natural heritage: energy extraction. Coal mining has ravaged big areas, especially in the south of the state, as it has in adjacent eastern Kentucky. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation is already happening in parts of West Virginia, as well as adjacent Pennsylvania, and threatens many more areas. Conventional natural gas exploitation is already widespread, including within Monongahela National Forest; planned power transmission lines would cut through National Forest and other important lands; and scores of industrial wind turbines have been erected on ridge-tops along the Allegheny Front and hundreds more are proposed. Tough advocacy groups like the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org) necessarily spend much of their time fighting the worst sorts of energy exploitation.
As urgently as any state in the country, West Virginia needs national and state energy policies that emphasize conservation and efficiency, to greatly reduce our nation’s energy consumption, and establish strong siting criteria for where energy extraction may and may not occur. Such criteria should include prohibitions on industrial-scale energy extraction (including giant wind turbines) in all roadless areas, bird and bat migratory routes, river corridors, wetlands, habitats of rare and endangered species, and other ecologically critical areas. As Dave Foreman has editorialized in a couple recent Campfires (rewilding.org), energy production should happen where people live and should often be solar installations on existing buildings and parking lots. Residential-scale wind power is another in a set of decentralized solutions to the climate and energy crises. Energy expert and micro-hydro engineer Bob King has rightly noted, until we Americans “cap the grid,” we are not seriously addressing these dire crises.
Action Needed: Protecting the wilds of West Virginia, such as North Fork Mountain and ridges and valleys all around, may depend as much on energy conservation as on land conservation. Even as we work for larger Wilderness Areas and a High Allegheny National Park, we need to reduce our own energy consumption and support efforts to drastically cut carbon emissions, enough to lower carbon levels in the atmosphere back to the 350 parts per million (see 350.org) that are safe and sustainable for spruce forests, mountain streams, salamanders, trout, bears, butterflies, songbirds, and the people who depend on them.
For the Wild,