Help Protect the Cheat Canyon Today!

posted October 18, 2002
by Kevin Colburn

HELP SAVE THE CHEAT CANYON!

American Whitewater and a diverse group of stakeholders are working hard to have the Cheat Canyon protected. Below is a fact sheet and a sample letter to the Governor of West Virginia. PLEASE send a letter to the Governor supporting the current effort to protect this beautiful river. It WILL help make a difference.

Special Thanks to Charlie Walbridge for spearheading this issue!

CHEAT GORGE/BIG SANDY FACT SHEET

The WV Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) is seeking to acquire
approximately 6,500 acres of land in Preston County currently owned by
Allegheny Energy (AE). Approximately 4,700 acres is in Cheat Gorge; the
remaining 1,800 acres are along the Big Sandy. If acquired, these lands would
become WVDNR wildlife management areas, probably an expansion of the existing
Snakehill WMA. Conservation easements and agreements will be established with
the US Fish and Wildlife Service to protect federally endangered species.This
represents a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect a significant
stretch of wild land. Your letters to West Virginia Governor Robert Wise are
needed to support this purchase.

The Cheat Canyon is an important recreational corridor. The Cheat and Big
Sandy Rivers are both renowned whitewater runs. They attract thousands of
paddlers from all over the East and support a modest whitewater rafting
industry. The Allegheny Trail, a 330-mile long footpath running from the
Pennsylvania Line near Bruceton Mills to the Appalachian Trail near Glen
Lynn, Virginia, parallels the river throughout the canyon. A second footpath
follows the Big Sandy from Rockville downstream to several magnificent
waterfalls. Both areas offer moderate hikes that are popular both with
tourists and local residents. The area is hunted and, where water quality
permits, fished.

The Cheat Canyon is home to the federally threatened flat-spired
three-toothed land snail. With this purchase, most of its habitat will be
protected in public ownership and it should be possible to remove it from the
endangered species list. One cave in the Gorge harbors a population of
federally endangered Indiana bats that hibernate in the cave each winter.
Other land within the Gorge is foraging habitat for this rare bat. Eighty
other caves, most of which have not been surveyed for biological resources,
are documented on these tracts.

The Cheat Canyon is also home to a large number of other wildlife species
including game animals (white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, etc.), neotropical
migratory birds, and several rare plants and animals such as the green
salamander and the smooth rose. The Big Sandy tract includes the trail to
Wonder Falls. It contains a stocked trout stream, Laurel Run, that is a
significant destination for anglers in the Morgantown area. The Nature
Conservancy considers the area important as a "matrix block", an extensive
block of unbroken forest.

AE wants to sell these lands as soon as possible. The company currently has
other buyers for the property, but is willing to donate 25% of the acreage to
WVDNR if the state can purchase 75% of the land. At present, WVDNR has funds
to acquire approximately 13% of the lands. We need your support to raise the
money for the rest. Your letters will make a difference.


CHEAT CANYON ECOLOGY
A Perspective from Appalachian Conservation Biology:

QUESTION: The Cheat River is one of the largest watersheds in West Virginia,
so which part of it is the "canyon"?

ANSWER: What many people consider the Cheat Canyon is the steep-sided stretch
from Albright, a popular put-in for kayakers and rafters, to Cheat Lake (the
river runs north). Albright is in Preston County and Cheat Lake is in
Monongalia. The canyon length is approximately 16 miles. The upstream limit
of the lake (reservoir) water is almost directly below the Coopers Rock
overlook, though the canyon does not widen for another couple of miles, near
Mount Chateau State Park. Elevation of the river ranges from 1,180' to 860'
asl, while the elevation of the rim is highly variable. The taller rim edges
are roughly 1,000' above the river - in the 1,800-2,000' range. Many slopes
exceed 30є and there are scattered cliffs along the sandstone rim and the
outside of river bends. Knolls back from the rim reach 2,100-2,200'.

Q: What is so special about the ecology of the Cheat River Canyon?

A: There are rare plants and animals found in the canyon, there are unique
habitats, and there are high-quality examples of common species and habitats.
And, perhaps most importantly, these features are connected by a continuous
"fabric" of native forest.
Rare animals of the canyon include a pack rat, a salamander, two bats,
three land snails and two cave invertebrates or "scuds." There is also a rare
streamside plant. Despite all of the unique species found in the canyon, it
is so rugged that it is actually rather poorly known.

Globally rare animals of the Cheat River Canyon (on a G1 to G5 scale)
Common name Species name Global State
Allegheny woodrat Neotoma magister G3G4 S3
social (Indiana) bat Myotis sodalis G2 S1
small-footed bat Myotis leibii G3 S1
green salamander Aneides aneus G3G4 S3
bladetooth Patera species G3 -
Cheat threetooth Triodopsis platysayoidesG1 S1
delicate vertigo Vertigo bollesiana G3 -
an isopod Lirceus (undescribed) ? -
an amphipod Stygobromus (undescribed)? -
Barbara's buttons Marshallia grandiflora G2 S2

The special habitats include cliffs and boulder screes of Pottsville
Sandstone (often with small patches of old growth forest), and caves that
tend to be found in the lower slopes of the canyon in its seam of Greenbrier
Limestone. There are dozens of caves, with at least six longer than 500'.
Cornwell Cave, a maze cave with more than 13 miles of passages, is the
biggest and managed by The Nature Conservancy under an agreement with
landowner Allegheny Energy.
High quality habitats include limestone forest with mature stands of cove
hardwoods and abundant spring ephemeral wildflowers. Most of these forest
sites remain free of invasive non-native plants. In the canyon's
second-growth forest, scattered "specimen" examples of shagbark hickory,
American beech and other trees are found. Along the river, large gravel bars
and sandbars are dynamic environments. These habitats provide a place for
riverside colonizing plants, and abound with butterflies and other insects in
summer.

Q: The canyon looks fine to me, so what are the threats?

A: Despite its appearance as a blanket of green, there are many impacts
hidden under the tree canopy, and a few are not so hidden.
Although the canyon holds large areas of high-quality habitat, other parts
are degraded by logging and mining, and portions of the rim are becoming
developed. The most widespread and direct impacts are from logging roads cut
into the steep flanks of the canyon. Because of the steepness, eight to
twelve road sections are run across slopes for logging access. Past
operations have caused some catastrophic landslides, such as the one just
below the mouth of the Big Sandy River on the northeast side. More
frequently, the roads trap surface water flow and channel it into ditches.
This loss and redirection of surface water affects most plants on the slope.
Then this ditched water reaches a low spot or turnout on the road and is
spilled downhill, often digging a gully that may reach six or eight feet in
depth. Strip mining along the top of the canyon also contributes to gullies
and changes in drainage patterns, and increases peak flows to cause further
destabilization.
Mining within the watershed of canyon tributaries is also a source of
acute acid mine drainage (AMD). Muddy Creek and Bull Run have the most
obvious problems. Because water quality is significantly degraded, canyon
waters no longer hold rare or sensitive aquatic species, such as the
hellbender or Cheat minnow. Many common species are also absent, and fishing
and swimming are not possible in the upper third of the canyon. AMD issues
are being addressed by a number of recent and new federally funded treatment
projects. Friends of the Cheat has been an important advocacy group for water
quality improvements.
In the past decade many new houses have sprung up along the canyon rim,
especially in the Snake Hill area. Among the effects of development is
fragmentation of habitat for wide-ranging animals.
In addition to these threats, canyon habitats and species are also
subject to impacts from "trans-boundary" phenomena such as acid rain and
global climate change. The effects of fire suppression, white-tailed deer
overpopulation, off-road vehicle incursions, and visitor overuse of popular
and scenic spots are other concerns.

© Ken Hotopp, Appalachian Conservation Biology - khotopp@hereintown.net


SAMPLE CHEAT CANYON LAND PURCHASE LETTER

Governor Robert Wise
1900 Kanawha Boulevard, E
Charleston, WV 25305

Dear Governor Wise,

I recently learned that the West Virginia DNR has been working to acquire
the lands in the area owned by Allegheny Energy for some time. AE would like
to see these lands, which represent roughly 75% of the Cheat Canyon and a
significant part of the Big Sandy Gorge, transferred to state hands. The DNR
would like to buy them, and already has some of the funding in hand. If
successful, this would be a very exciting development with many positive
benefits for the people of West Virginia and surrounding states.

This is an opportunity to protect a unique area. These lands contain a vast
forest with mature stands of cove hardwoods and abundant spring wildflowers.
It's home to several rare and endangered species. The river itself is an
important recreational corridor. The Cheat Canyon and Big Sandy Rivers are
both renowned whitewater runs. They attract thousands of paddlers from all
over the East and support a modest whitewater rafting industry. The Allegheny
Trail, a 330-mile long footpath running from the Pennsylvania Line near
Bruceton Mills to the Appalachian Trail near Glen Lynn, Virginia, parallels
the river throughout the canyon. A second footpath follows the Big Sandy from
Rockville to several magnificent waterfalls. Both areas offer moderate hikes
that are popular both with tourists and local residents.

We believe that this represents a once-on-a-lifetime opportunity to
maintain the quality of life in Northern West Virginia and support the vital
tourist industry. I urge you to do everything in your power to make this deal
succeed.

Sincerely,