Albion Monitor /Commentary

Canyon on the Brink

by Mary R. Furbee

You can see the scenic spot in a TV ad promoting West Virginia tourism: a sandstone outcropping that juts into the open blue sky. A pair of spandex-clad mountain bikers rest there, admiring the panoramic view. On the steep, forested slopes, tumbling waterfalls lined by tangled rhododendron thickets, plummet into a mist-shrouded abyss. It's the beautiful 1,500-foot-deep Blackwater Canyon, visible from lookout points in West Virginia's famous Blackwater Falls State Park and the adjacent Monongahela National Forest.

In February, the Blackwater Canyon was sold to a logging company.

A local land developer paid $4.7 million, then sold it to the loggers for $5 million that same day
The Canyon "is advertised as the crown jewel of the state," says Mike Caplinger, a historian of industry at West Virginia University. "Yet that overlook is right above the area that's going to be logged."

An estimated 2.2 million visitors come to soak up the beauty of this eastern mountain wilderness and most come from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, only a two-hour drive away. Yet, unbeknownst to virtually all the sightseers, hikers, bicyclers and kayakers who flock here, this scenic jewel has long been privately owned.

Although surrounded by the Monongahela National Forest, the 3,000-acre canyon was owned by Allegheny Power Company, which supplies power to state residents. The sale came after several years of unsuccessful negotiations with the Conservation Fund, a preservation group based in Arlington. The Fund buys private land within national parks and forests and holds it until public monies can be raised or allocated by Congress to extend the public holdings. If a deal had gone through, the canyon would have become part of the 900,000-acre Monongahela National Forest. In addition to permanent protection of the view and unspoiled habitat, U.S. Forest Service ownership would have permanently linked together numerous rail trails -- former railroad lines converted to hiking and biking paths -- in the state's highlands.

In its negotiations, the Conservation Fund offered approximately $3.5 million. Other buyers offered more. On February 18 of this year, a local land developer named Brian Black paid Allegheny Power $4.7 million. Then the same day, Black resold the land to Allegheny Wood Products, based in Petersburg, W. Va., for $5 million.

"The sale really shocked a lot of people,' says Judy Rodd, executive director of West Virginia Land Trust, a non-profit group that works to protect special land and habitats from development. "The landscape is so rugged that it would be violently degraded by extractive industries, and there's always the chance that it could be developed after it is logged."

The Trust has launched a "Save the Blackwater Campaign" to rally opposition to logging and development in the canyon. In addition, officials from the Conservation Fund and the U.S. Forest Service have said they would still like to "see the canyon protected, either by buying it or by assisting Allegheny Wood Products in conservation efforts," said David Sutherland the Fund's director of real estate. He suggests that Allegheny Wood Products might be interested in trading the parcel for another piece property within the National Forest.

John Crites, the owner of Allegheny Wood Products, says his company is currently surveying the land and has no comment on future plans.

Sweet's Cafe in Thomas, near the state park, is a restored general store turned gathering place and gift shop. Shelves once stacked with dusty soup tins and feed sacks now hold antique toys and stoneware pottery. A pot-bellied stove that once served as the focal point for local news-sharing by old-timer has been replaced by a trendy coffee bar that serves up cappuccinos and expressos. Sweet's caters primarily to a biking, hiking and kayaking crowd in summer. In winter, the cross-country skiers arrive. County-wide, these visitors add $22 million to the local economy each year. But on a damp and cold Thursday in early May, Sweet's is the gathering spot of local tourism entrepreneurs and area workers. The conversation, not surprisingly, often turns to the fate of the canyon.

Elizabeth Gillespie, a local bike-race promoter who sits on the boards of the Tucker County Chamber Commerce and the Highlands Trail Foundation, is particularly worried about the Blackwater Trail, an old railroad grade that descents into the canyon alongside the Blackwater River. Under Allegheny Power's ownership, the trail has been used as an unofficial hiking and biking trail, as well as an access road by trout fishermen and expert kayakers who ride the Blackwater River's phenomenal 8-mile stretch of rapids.

Before descending into the canyon, visitors can see not just beauty of the land, but the history of its use too: old coke ovens, reclaimed strip mines, railroad ruins and a state-funded million dollar pollution-control facility that is helping to upgrade the water quality of river tributaries and improve the trout populations. Then the trail passes several spectacular waterfalls and scenic overlooks.

"It's an incredibly beautiful ride," Gillespie says. "It's a great opportunity to see where we've been and where we're going."

"Even if the company doesn't get permission to use it as a road, people would have to hike and bike right past logging operation. And if people see logging, they won't come back"
Now, however, the trail's use could change. The deed-of-sale for the canyon indicates that Allegheny Wood Products property line now runs down the middle of the trail, according to the deed. The Forest Service owns the other half of the trail and would have to approve the company's use of the trail to haul logs and machinery. By law, the Forest Service is not permitted to land-lock owners of private parcels within a National Forest.

"Now, no one knows what's going to happen," Gillespie says. "Even if the company doesn't get permission to use it as a road, people would have to hike and bike right past logging operation. And if people see logging, they won't come back."

Tucker County and West Virginia have long been dependent on extractive boom-and-bust industries like timber and coal. But many people around here have begun to realize that industries that extract and export raw natural materials are also industries that pollute and create very few jobs. By contrast, a local economy based on the preservation and tourism is sustainable and will capitalize on the area's inherent strengths.

If the canyon is logged, mountain bikers standing on a stone overlook above it will no longer see what people around here (and elsewhere) boast as "America's best kept secret." Spindly infant saplings will replace the lush canopy of mature trees and tangled mountain laurel. The rain will wash exposed soil from the forest floor into the river below, degrading the stream and fish habitats. Their habitats destroyed, the black bear, turkey, trout and magnolia warblers will go in search of the few wild places left to them. And when those mountain bikers leave to follow the Forest Service roads back to the highway leading home, they may well find themselves behind noisy coal trucks that spew black exhaust and gouge ruts into the gravel.

Mike Caplinger, whose father was the superintendent of Blackwater Falls State Park and who grew up on the canyon's rim, believes that logging in the Blackwater Canyon would be "heartbreaking." Judy Rodd insists that "it makes no sense to destroy what draws people here in the first place." And, cradling her cup of coffee at Sweet's Cafe, Elizabeth Gillespie expresses views most of her table-mates share.

"Maybe Allegheny Wood didn't realize how much people care about the canyon," she says. "Maybe they will decide to be good citizens and sell the canyon to the National Forest."

Mary Furbee is a freelance writer and part-time journalism instructor at WVU. This article first appeared in the Washington Post, Sunday May 25

Photo by Paul M. Furbee

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Albion Monitor July 21, 1997 (

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