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Sunday Sit-Down: The Nature Conservancy's Rodney Bartgis

July 3, 2011
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Bartgis: We are making progress, some of the most iconic and important natural areas in West Virginia have been preserved, places like here on Dolly Sods where we're sitting today, the New River Gorge. ... There is a lot that remains to be done, as well as trying to think about how we can ensure that a lot of the benefits of those places and other natural areas (work) for all of us.

Bartgis: Bear Rocks probably is one of the most well known places in West Virginia, people will certainly know Dolly Sods, and Bear Rocks is the beautiful outcropping at the north end of the Dolly Sods plateau. It's covered with heath, blueberries and huckleberries that have probably been here for thousands of years, cranberry bogs that support many northern species ... and the spruce forests and the other forests around Bear Rocks, as well as the cliffs themselves, support a variety of plants and animals that are only found in the southern mountains.

Bartgis: Some of the ecosystems up here - the cranberry glades, the heath lands - survived and have recovered from both the impacts of logging 100 years ago and from the fires, as well as the artillery training back during World War II. ... Some ecosystems, such as the spruce forests, which take hundreds if not thousands of years to fully develop, are definitely needing the help of human hands to really recover and be the type of functioning ecosystem they've been in the past.

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Bartgis: There's probably three or four ... significant issues we're really concerned about. One is the non-native insect pest and invasive plant pest that are becoming more and more widespread including in a lot of conservation areas like up here on Dolly Sods. We have insect pests from Asia that are really starting to decimate many more of our tree species such as Hemlock trees, fir trees and ash trees. In addition, we are becoming more and more concerned about habitat fragmentation and other impacts from the expansion of energy development in West Virginia. And as are many people we're becoming more and more concerned with the growing problems with climate change.

Bartgis: Our native trees don't have resistance to the types of diseases from insect pests now moving in to Appalachia. So when those pests get here, especially at the speed at which they now can be spread through our modern transportation means, the trees ... don't have time to adapt and to evolve and change to be able to gain any resistance to these species. The new pests typically wipe out species entirely.

In West Virginia, we've already lost the bulk of our native firs, we're losing most of our hemlocks and now we're starting to see the ash trees suffer. ... It seems like every year there's an additional pest coming into the state that you've got to be worried about.

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Bartgis: That's the Japanese stilt grass, and as recently as 1980 the Japanese stilt grass was unknown in West Virginia. Since then, it has spread throughout the state and it's probably the most abundant grass in West Virginia forests now. Unfortunately, it does very well if there's a little bit of a disturbance to get it started, and then it can maintain itself under a canopy, which is unusual for many of our non-native species, and it grows very lush and pretty much just ... smothers out all the native plants, to the point ... it becomes a single mat of Japanese stilt grass.

(Removing the grass) depends on the setting. If the setting's around rare species or an ecologically fragile location, we pretty much have to pull it by hand. There's other places ... that using herbicide is the only option readily available. Once a species becomes that bad as an invasive, we try to target where we're going to control it and the real hope is that some biological control will be found. ...

We're very lucky, we have about a million members for the organization, we have about 4,000 members here in West Virginia. Between our supporters here in West Virginia and surrounding states, we're able to do our best to try to stay on top of some of these problems. There are some preserves where we have volunteers that have literally been weeding the invasives there for a decade now. ... Without the support of the volunteers and our members providing us the financial support ... it would be very difficult to keep many of our natural areas in a position where we and all people who enjoy nature would be able to enjoy them.

Bartgis: For the Ohio River Island National Wildlife Refuge, The Nature Conservancy was instrumental in having the refuge established and acquiring most of the islands that make up the refuge. For the Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership, The Nature Conservancy is working with a variety of state government agencies, federal agencies, other non-profits to try to look at the aquatic system of the Ohio River basin, especially the main stem, and look at what we can do to improve the management of those streams which could bring back the incredible diversity of the fish and mussel populations. ... Can we manage the main stem of the Ohio in a way that allows commerce, transportation, flood control to continue but tweak it in a way that improves the movement of the big fish, paddlefish, sturgeon.

... There is a relatively significant issue that we're concerned about. There's been an introduction of a lot of invasive fish. ... For a variety of reason, fish have moved from one watershed to another and have started to displace each other. For instance in the New River watershed, there are six species of fish that are found there and nowhere else on earth. Several of those are being displaced now by fish that have been brought in from other watersheds.

Bartgis: We are interested in freshwater ecosystems in the Northern Panhandle and the north central West Virginia. Thinking less about trying to acquire land for natural areas as much as trying to think about what it would take to restore and enhance the condition of the streams there. Some of those streams are very diverse. Dunkard Creek ... in the Monongahela watershed in Monongalia County was one of the most diverse streams left in West Virginia, and ... we just recently destroyed one of the most diverse streams we had left in the state and now it's a question of can conservationists and others bring that diversity back. ... Wheeling Creek, Middle Island Creek, some of the creeks in that part of the state support many things that we don't have opportunities to really conserve elsewhere in West Virginia. Some of the streams support some of the best viable populations left for the Hellbender salamander, which is the largest salamander in Eastern North America. ...

Bartgis: Some of the areas that we'd really like to see land conservation happen in ... include parts of the Greenbrier Valley, there are many very, very significant cave systems in the Greenbrier Valley, most of which are not conserved, and there's a lot of organisms, including crayfish and other types of cave-dwelling species that are found only in Greenbrier Valley caves and nowhere else on earth. ... There's areas around the New River Gorge that we would still like to see conserved, especially to help buffer the existing forest that the National Park Service owns there. The same for the Gauley canyon.

And then even in areas that people tend to think of as being well conserved there's a lot of additional lands that are key to making sure those places stay functional and viable including places in and around Canaan Valley, even here at the Dolly Sods area, on Cheat Mountain, still in the Smoke Hole, and on Shenandoah and South Branch mountains in the Eastern Panhandle.

Bartgis: There's a lot of value to working with landowners on conservation easements. With such easements ... The Nature Conservancy will pick up certain rights to the property to make sure those conservation values will remain in perpetuity. We'll often pick up something like the development rights or the mineral rights. The other rights remain with that landowner. ... Among the benefits, for one thing, is that we don't have to worry about totally managing every piece of property out there that's important, it's more of a partnership between us and the landowner. Those properties also remain on the property tax rolls, so there's real value there to the local county, and it really engages the landowner more ... in understanding and appreciating what's important about that property. ... No matter how many times the property changes hands, the conservation easement stays with that property.

Bartgis: Bats ... especially at night, are a significant predator of insects. Our West Virginia bats almost exclusively are insect eaters. They not only help keep insect numbers down, but also help to regulate such species like moths, that aren't necessarily pests. So even though I don't think of there as being a true balance of nature, there's certainly a realm of variation that you want to see things stay within ... to function in a healthy way.

Bats also play important roles in moving material from one place to another, from the outside world into the caves and vice versa, that benefits a lot of other organisms ... tied to caves. At the same time we've seen this White-nose syndrome just decimate populations of bats in the caves, the disease causes them to wake up in the winter when they are hibernating, they use up energy and starve to death, in essence. Right now there's no known control, and ... conservation agencies like us who own caves that have bat populations in them have closed the caves to visitors to try to reduce people helping to spread the disease.

Bartgis: The Nature Conservancy is taking a comprehensive look at ... all forms of energy - natural gas, coal mining, biomass utilization, wind energy development and the associated transmission lines. ... As far as natural gas is concerned, there are reasons to be concerned about the potential for pollution of both groundwater and surface waters from how materials that are used in gas drilling are both used and stored as well as how they are disposed of. We do believe that if the appropriate measures are taken relative to casing, to make sure that when they put the well in place that the casing both is through the area that the well penetrates associated with groundwater and that it is structurally sound and monitored ... and then (drilling companies) think about the disposal and storage, as well as thinking about the water withdrawal issues up front, we do think it can be done in an environmentally sound way.

Bartgis: We are starting to see longer growing seasons, and those longer growing seasons do mean that some places that are suitable for certain species are no longer suitable. It does mean that areas that have not been suitable for some plants and animals are becoming more suitable. It certainly means that species that like cool environments such as we have in high elevations in West Virginia are facing a new threat they haven't faced before, and it means that some of the species that we're going to see moving into West Virginia are species that we don't think of as desirable. There are parts of West Virginia in the high elevations that don't have ticks and chiggers. We are starting to see those kinds of pests move into places that they hadn't been before.

We're also seeing ... fairly moist environments drying out more, and certain parts of the state appear to be seeing more and more likelihood of drought stress. There's other parts of the state where climate change (produces) more and more rainfall, and we are starting to see more rainfall and that threatens species that are tied to a particular flood regime and hydrologic regimes.

It's hard to tease out because climate change is tied to so many other things. ... But there is starting to be a repeating pattern that is otherwise becoming more and more difficult to explain outside of climate change.

Bartgis: Well, right here, the Bear Rocks/Dolly Sods area, for people who have not been here before or for people who have been here, it's certainly worth the visit except in the dead of winter, when it's a little hard to get to. In the summer it's a place to escape the heat of the lower elevations, right now the mountain laurel and rhododendron are in bloom, and of course the fall colors, and it's a great place for bird migration, especially in the fall to watch migrating hawks and eagles, and there's a banding station where you can watch the banders catch birds and release them after they put bands on them.

Other places are the New River Gorge, with its dramatic waterfalls, the beautiful river and excellent recreation amenities, and then I would also highly recommend for people who are more adventurous to go down to North Fork Mountain, get a map from the National Forest Service and hike the North Fork Mountain Trail. It's stunningly beautiful ... especially once the leaves are off. It's a good winter hike, because once the leaves are off the views are unmatchable.

Bartgis: The easiest way is to go to our website,, there's all kinds of opportunities to learn about our conservation work not only in West Virginia, but all around the globe. To learn more about West Virginia, just put "West Virginia" in the search section and it will take you to the West Virginia page. Or you can call The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, 304-637-0160 in Elkins and we can send you information.

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