ELKINS, W.Va. - Ten years ago, the land on which Keith Fisher stood was slated to be developed into a ski resort. Under another potential buyer's plan, it would have morphed into a second-home residential development, he said.
The bottomline? The more than 400-acre plot of scenic mountain forest that borders Mount Porte Crayon and the Roaring Plains and Dolly Sods wilderness areas in Harman was likely going to be sold to the highest bidder.
"They were going to auction it off," Fisher, the director of conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy, said of the land, which is speckled with red spruce trees.
Photo by Casey Houser
Members of The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service stand atop a 415-acre portion of Randolph County forest.
But today, thanks to the combined efforts of Fisher's organization, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, the 415-acre tract will soon become part of the Monongahela National Forest and as such, will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
During a special media tour of the property Friday, officials with all three agencies announced the forest service was acquiring the land through a series of partnerships dating back a decade. This most recent purchase is the pinnacle of what's known as the Thunderstruck Project, an ongoing effort to preserve nearly 2,000 acres of former timber company land in a wide swath of red spruce and hardwood forest.
In 2008, the Nature Conservancy and Thunderstruck Conservation LLC teamed up to protect 275 acres through a conservation easement. Then, in 2011, the Nature Conservancy assisted in the forest service in securing another 1,100-acre addition to the Monongahela National Forest.
"All partners involved have been working on this for a decade to bring it to fruition," Fisher said.
Part of the Nature Conservancy's role has been to securely hold the most recent addition to the Thunderstruck conservation project until the Forest Service was able to cobble together enough funds to make the purchase.
"For West Virginia, this is really the top of the world," Fisher said as his Ford F-150 bounced up the rugged mountainside en route to the peak of the property, which crests at 4,600 feet.
The 415-acre tract includes 300 acres that will, within weeks, be purchased from the Nature Conservancy by the U.S. Forest Service using funds from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund; the forest service will buy the remaining 115 acres using a grant from the West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel Fund, which is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
After all, the presence of squirrels - and specifically, West Virginia northern flying squirrels - are one of the main reasons the land is so valuable. Three endangered animal species and one endangered plant species - the northern flying squirrel, the Virginia big-eared bat, the Cheat Mountain salamander and the running buffalo clover - make their home in the unique habitat, said Barbara Douglas, an endangered species specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Cheat Mountain salamander is only found in high areas in West Virginia, Douglas said, with the largest population of the black and gold-flecked lizard living next door in Pendleton County.
"The northern flying squirrel also only occurs in West Virginia and a small part of Virginia," Douglas said. "It's actually moving off the endangered list to recovery."