September 28, 2014

Land Trust celebrates acquisition of Gauley River tract | Charleston Gazette

KESSLER’S CROSS LANES — On a hike down the Pierson Hollow Trail on Friday, Ashton Berdine pointed out three species of ferns, a cluster of towering, 300-plus-year-old hemlocks and three trail-traversing copperheads.

Berdine, the lands program manager for the West Virginia Land Trust, was leading a group of hikers into the Trust’s most recent acquisition — a 665-acre tract of Gauley River canyonland wedged between the state-managed Civil War battlefield and the federally owned Gauley River National Recreation Area. As trail began to descend steeply into Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park, the roar of the Gauley River rapids filled the air, and the trail passed into the newly-acquired tract. Soon, the Gauley came into view just as a series of rafters and kayakers drifted silently past headed toward the notorious Pillow Rock Rapids, just around the bend.

“The Gauley River Canyon is one of those iconic places we try hard to preserve,” Berdine said. In addition to thundering whitewater and tall timber, the newly purchased land — which will eventually be added to the Gauley River National Recreation Area — is home to endangered Indiana and Virginia big-eared bats and seldom-seen eastern hellbender salamanders, which can reach two feet in length and weigh up to five pounds.

“There’s a unique river scour zone along the shores where certain plants, like the federally threatened Virginia spiraea, are known to grow,” Berdine said.

The new Land Trust acquisition stretches in a narrow band to include nearly six miles of shoreline. It is mostly on the river right, or Carnifex Ferry side of the Gauley, but also encompasses both walls of the canyon downstream from Pillow Rock.

Berdine said National Park Service officials consider purchases of such Gauley River National Recreation Area inholdings to be one of the agency’s top priorities east of the Mississippi.

“This place gives people a sense of remoteness and wildness,” said Trish Kicklighter, superintendent of the New River Gorge National River. “It is also globally significant, because it will be part of one of the only unfragmented forests in this part of the world.”

In addition to providing unbroken habitat for animals living in the park today, “As climate changes occur, animals will have a place to migrate through,” she said.

Kicklighter was among speakers taking part in a program celebrating the purchase of the tract and its eventual transfer to the National Park Service. Nearly 100 people took part in the event, held at a viewpoint at Carnifex Ferry overlooking the canyon.

Also speaking was Summersville businessman Bill Bright, who had once planned to build a development, “The Retreat at Carnifex Ferry” on the tract.

“I’m now glad to keep the land undeveloped and unspoiled for future generations of West Virginians,” Bright told the crowd.

“A visit to this place is priceless,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “It’s a place you’ll want to share with family and friends for generations to come.”

Manchin said he was more accustomed to viewing the stretch of the Upper Gauley now protected by the Land Trust, from a whitewater raft, “and sometimes from the river itself” after being knocked out of the boat.

As many as 60,000 paddlers pass through the stretch of river every year.

Manchin then recalled the effort made by Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., to get bipartisan Congressional approval to create the New River Gorge National River and the Gauley River Recreation Area during the Reagan administration, a feat he said was unlikely to happen in today’s era of Congressional contention.

“I had to work across party lines and ask Republicans to support my legislation, and make the calls that needed to be made, and they did what I asked for,” Rahall said. “It’s that type of across-the-aisle cooperation we need today.”

By:  Rick Steelhammer