To preface this story, it should be noted that, in light of the recent flooding in much of the area that encompasses the Monongahela National Forest (as well as Birthplace of Rivers), much of the recreation access to Birthplace is destroyed and will take years and millions of dollars to restore. But that doesn’t mean you can’t support the recovery, and when the dust settles, visit these areas—a temporary disaster certainly won’t destroy their long-term beauty. And tourism dollars will help as much as anything.
As we indicated on the back cover of our July issue, here are some ways you can help right now:
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And now, the story …
We arrived just in time to see Roy Moose handling the timber rattlesnake. On a long, hooked pole, the rattler slithered up slowly towards Moose’s arms. Whenever he got too close, Moose skillfully shifted the balance back down towards the pole’s far end, and the snake slipped towards the hook, both ends—fangs and rattle—dangling uselessly in the air. Then, once again, he would work his way back up towards his handler, never quite making it, until Moose finally dropped him back into his glass cage, and moved on to show the rapt audience the next snake—a copperhead.
My husband John and I were visiting the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center, on the edge of West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness in the heart of a region that some hope to make a National Monument. The region, in the southern part of the Monongahela National Forest, boasts the headwaters of six pristine rivers—the Cranberry, Gauley, Greenbrier, Elk, Williams, and Cherry—that ultimately feed into the Ohio, and then the Mississippi Rivers. Before reaching the Ohio, these rivers support some of the best trout fishing in the state, and provide clean drinking water to 350,000 West Virginians. And so, the broad coalition of conservationists, businesses, sportsmen, and local communities promoting the monument designation have christened the area “Birthplace of Rivers.” But not everyone in this neck of the woods is on board.
I could count on one hand the number of times I’d been to the southern section of the “Mon” (as it’s known) and I hadn’t yet seen the famous Cranberry Glades—high elevation bogs hosting an odd assortment of peat-loving plants. So John and I took off from the Eastern Panhandle early one Sunday morning for a day-long road trip. The forecast called for rain, but on our morning drive through the Shenandoah Valley and into the unbroken green of the Allegheny Mountains, the rain held off. At the Nature Center, after wrangling the venomous snakes, Moose, a Forest Service volunteer, let us handle the non-poisonous snakes ourselves. Then we headed down the Highland Scenic Highway for the Glades.
The Scenic Highway and the surrounding 120,000 or so acres proposed for monument designation already are federally owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service, including the Cranberry Wilderness and Glades. Right now, that management illustrates just why West Virginia is called wild and wonderful. Unlike parts of the state heavily mined for coal, the mountains here remain intact and, in early June, spectacularly verdant. Although the Mon is managed for multiple uses, outdoor recreation is king here, and provides some of the wildest opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, mountain biking, and other outdoor activities on an otherwise crowded East Coast.
Businesses and communities that support monument designation and rely on this outdoor mecca for tourist dollars worry that this could change. The more-than-47,000-acre Cranberry Wilderness maintains its wild status under federal law. But management of other parts of the forest can vary over time, subject to the whims of changing administrations, congressional priorities, and periodically revised management plans. Proponents of a national monument want to keep the Birthplace of Rivers just as it is now—managed by the U.S. Forest Service largely for recreation—while elevating its visibility nationally through a monument designation.
“West Virginia currently has no national monuments,” John Manchester told me. Manchester is mayor of the city of Lewisburg, a gateway community on the southern edge of the Mon. “Travelers who are outdoor enthusiasts look for national monuments when seeking destinations,” he said. “We can’t compete for those tourism dollars [now].”
Gateway communities such as Lewisburg, Richwood, and Fayette County have passed resolutions supporting the designation, citing the economic benefits that accompanied monument designations out West. A study conducted by the consulting firm Downstream Strategies for the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition estimated that designation of a Birthplace of the Rivers National Monument would inject an additional $4.2 million into the regional economy, $200,000 in state and local taxes, and 42 new jobs.
But the three Commissioners of Pocahontas County, where much of the proposed monument is based, oppose designation. Commissioner Jamie Walker told me they’re concerned that national monuments typically restrict hunting, fishing, and logging. He fears that recreational activities like camping and driving on the Scenic Highway would be subject to fees. “We haven’t gotten answers to our questions,” he claimed, despite receiving two letters from the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service indicating that all existing uses would continue under designation, and management was unlikely to change.
Meanwhile, time is running out. Congress can designate national monuments, but most emerge via presidential proclamation, typically at the end of a president’s second term when he wants an easy way to leave a conservation legacy. Thanks to the Antiquities Act of 1906, presidents can create monuments with the stroke of a pen, and most have done so ever since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. President Obama has designated or expanded more than 20 national monuments so far. Now, he has seven months left in office and a long list of sites competing for his attention. Only some will make the cut.
According to supporters, leadership from West Virginia’s congressional delegation would help. Senator Manchin reportedly agreed to introduce legislation two years ago, but has failed to do so. His office also failed to provide me with any comment on the monument proposal despite my repeated requests.
Senator Capito’s office reportedly asked the Pocahontas County Commissioners to provide her a list of their concerns so they could be addressed in any monument proposal that emerged. Walker told me that, in response, he consulted with Frank Jezioro, a former head of West Virginia’s Department of Natural Resources whom Senator Manchin hired in 2015 as his Sportsmen and Natural Resources Liaison. According to Walker, Jezioro advised the commissioners not to respond, claiming that doing so would make them look like collaborators.
Regardless, supporters remain hopeful that Obama will designate the Birthplace of Rivers before the end of his term. According to Mike Costello, head of the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, the Administration has been looking for ways to diversify economies in places like southern West Virginia where extractive industries have declined. A designation is “low-hanging fruit,” he said.
As John and I approached the Glades that cloudy Sunday, I certainly hoped the area would remain protected forever, somehow. The sky had grown ominous overhead, and we grabbed our rain jackets before heading for the boardwalk—a half-mile trail that would allow us to experience the bizarre plants of a northern bog right here in West Virginia. We had just enough time to admire the enormous rhododendron at the entryway, and hear a Canada warbler singing in the trees, before the clouds let loose. In the downpour, the guided tour was canceled, but we forged ahead anyway. On our own, we spotted cinnamon fern, mountain laurel, skunk cabbage, and carnivorous pitcher plants, which trap insects in their cupped leaves to devour them for nutrients.
After an early dinner along the Greenbrier River in the nearby town of Marlinton, I strolled over to a mural painted on an empty brick building in the center of town. The mural depicted historic scenes of local fishing and logging. But even more than the images, I was struck by the words of former West Virginia Poet Laureate Louise McNeill interspersed among the scenes.
“This is the place it starts—Beyond the Allegheny, where this primordial river parts the hill.”
The birthplace of rivers, I thought, and the heart of West Virginians.
— Amy covers the environment, history, health, and culture for The Observer. Follow her at @AmyMatAm.