ELKINS -While West Virginia at-large is "Wild and Wonderful" or "Almost Heaven," some portions of the state are eye candy for the soul.
The West Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy has spent the last 50 years acquiring and preserving more than 120,000 acres of wilderness areas. Its efforts have spawned natural treasures belonging to the ages.
"Most of the land we buy is biologically significant," chapter director Rodney Bartgis said. "They are the most beautiful and iconic places in the state."
It started on Oct. 8, 1960 when a small band of West Virginia University students and faculty members bought a swamp. They worked through the The Nature Conservancy, a newly created national organization determined to protect the country's virgin wildlands as an outdoor classroom for nature study.
Now known as the Cranesville Swamp Preserve in Preston County, the area is home to many rare plant and animal species, including the southernmost native American larch trees and creeping snowberry - both Ice Age survivors.
Just three years later, the West Virginia Chapter took root when it signed its charter on Oct. 31, 1963.
Led by Bartgis and a diverse board of trustees representing geographic areas of the state and various professions, institutions, businesses and areas of expertise, TNC has protected 120,000 acres of precious Mountain State lands from the Ohio River Islands to Harpers Ferry. The conservancy's private preserves are found from Ice Mountain in Hampshire County and Cranesvile Swamp to the Slaty Mountain Shale Barren in Monroe County.
Among the more significant preserves are places such as Smoke Hole Canyon and North Fork Mountain, Panther Knob Preserve, Pine Knob Preserve, Bear Rocks Preserves, Ice Mountain Preserve, Cranesville Swamp Preserve, Upper Shavers Fork, Greenbrier River Valley, Brush Creek Preserve, Eidolon Nature Preserve, Hungry Beech Preserve, Marl Marshes, Slaty Mountain Preserve, the Yankauer Preserve and Greenland Gap.
TNC is in the final stages of acquiring 200 acres at Mt. Porte Crayon in Randolph County.
"We already protect 2,000 acres there and this will round out our conservation efforts in that area," Bartgis said.
Moving forward, TNC will keep doing what it does best.
"We will continue to do land conservation in a lot of wonderful places in West Virginia that are worth assuring future generations can enjoy the same we have," Bartgis said
The agency's land buying practices are reflective of its science-based philosophy.
"We have more than 400 scientists on staff nationwide so we can use scientific data to determine which lands have the highest conservation values," he said. "We especially use science to target property that we see as most significant for protecting."
While TNC buys land as part of the conservation process, it does not always maintain ownership.
Bartgis said, "We sell most property to the National Forest Service or to state parks or other public agencies so we do not have to assume long-term the cost of managing them. That way, we assure the property is managed properly."
Such areas include Dolly Sods Wilderness and other areas of the Monongahela National Forest, the New River Gorge National River, Beartown and Holly River State Parks, Shannondale Springs and Beury Mountain Wildlife Management Area and Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
As a non-profit organization, TNC in West Virginia has a $1 million annual operating budget derived from donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. The West Virginia chapter has more than 4,000 members across the state.
TNC works in all 50 states and in more than 30 countries, and has one million members nationwide.
Property acquisition funds - totalling $2 million to $5 million per year -comes from private donations and state and federal grants.
"We won't be able to directly conserve everything," Bartgis notes, "so TNC is looking at how it can work with shale gas companies and other developers to try to influence them to make better decisions.
"We can use science to define the potential impact to the habitat and how to avoid or reduce the impact," he continued. "We also are doing watershed assessments of West Virginia's stream basins to measure the impact of all activities on the habitats and better understand which areas are in good shape and which ones are damaged.
These assessments inform local communities and others on how to make informed conservation decisions. The information can help them decide on where to spend their money to clean up a problem or prevent a problem from developing."
A huge key to the agency's success is its ability to work collaboratively with others, including businesses.
"Because of our collaborative approach, we are often able to get good conservation outcomes," he said. "Dominion Energy donated our Bear Rocks Preserve on Dolly Sods to us and they also directly fund conservation work in West Virginia. MeadWestvaco, a timber/paper company, donated property to us and they help fund our forest restoration work. Consol Energy donated Fish Creek Island in Marshall County to us. We gave it to the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge."
TNC's fundamental mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. TNC is interested in West Virginia land and water because the state's forests and streams are among the most diverse and temperate ones on earth.
"We have more types of plants and animals here than any similar place on earth," Bartgis said. "Our Appalachian forests are the lungs of eastern North America."
He explained the metabolic process of trees recycles the air we breathe.
"Trees breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen back out," he said. "It is the complete opposite of animals and people."
Bartgis' zeal for TNC's mission shines through when he talks about what the preserved areas offer to the public.
"Places we've conserved give people a chance to get outdoors and enjoy all that nature offers. They can hunt, fish, hike and enjoy family times with the children," he said. "Research shows that kids and adults who spend time outside tend to be healthier. Some studies show that children who spend time outside do better in school. Children have an automatic interest in nature. They love bugs, fossils and salamanders.
The exposure they get to these things helps build curiosity and may develop the child's interest in pursuing a career in science.
"Other kids respond to the beauty of streams and scenery. This can lead to an increased interest in the arts," he continued. "Some kids enjoy jumping from rock to rock playing in swimming holes and running through fields. This sets them on a path of physical fitness and sports."
According to Bartgis, adults also respond well to the great outdoors. This is evident when visitors see artists with easels, mountain bikers, hikers, hunters and fisherman on the lands TNC has protected.
Through the work and passion of TNC, West Virginia's panoramic landscapes will continue to be eye candy for the ages.