Cheat Canyon in W.Va. Permanently Conserved

Uniontown Herald-Standard
11 April 2015
By Steve Ferris

The Cheat Canyon, eight miles of rugged West Virginia mountains with the Cheat River and the Allegheny Trail running through it, has been permanently conserved.

State, federal and conservation organization officials named it the Cheat Canyon Wildlife Management Area after they pulled together $7 million to buy the property from a private owner last fall.

“It’s been a priority for conservation for a long time,” said Ann Simonelli of the Conservation Fund, one of organizations involved in the effort.The canyon had been a target for preservation since the 1970s.

Preserving the canyon was the subject of a letter sent to Patrick Noonan in 1976, when he was president of the Nature Conservancy, Simonelli said. Later, Noonan left the Conservancy and created the Conservation Fund. The Nature Conservancy is another one of the groups involved in the canyon project.

“People have been trying to protect this part of Cheat Canyon for a long time,” Simonelli said. “Local residents and people who love the outdoors realize what kind of treasure this land is. They’ll be able to experience the landscape. It will be unmarred by development.”

The 3,800-acre canyon has trail heads at each end — just upstream of Coopers Rock State Forest and in Albright. It is a popular whitewater rafting and kayaking destination and is home to unique and rare wildlife.

“The primary goal for acquiring that area was the Indiana bat, an endangered species, and the flat-spired, three-toothed land snail, which is a threatened species,” said Steve Rauch, of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR). “It puts the known locations of the snail under state control, which is really important for management.”

Development and fire are the main treats to those animals, Rauch said. The state does not allow mountain bike riding on the trail to protect the snail, which is found nowhere else in the world, he said.

“It is the only place on this Earth where this thing lives,” said Keith Fisher of the Nature Conservancy.

Green salamanders also reside in the canyon. Rare plants grow in the scoured gravel bars in and along the river and caves dot the canyon walls, Fisher said.

Part of the trail at the Albright end of the canyon was closed by the previous owner, who also cut some timber there, he said.

“This will re-establish the trail,” Rauch said.

The logging road used in the timber cutting is now part of the trail, Fisher said.

The state opened the canyon to hunting for the first time in the fall and the harvest included a number of white-tailed deer and a black bear, he said.

“It’s also a whitewater hot spot,” Fisher said.

“The Cheat Canyon is a pretty special place. It’s been abused repeatedly for a long time. It’s great to have it protected. Not just the water resource, but the land resource,” said Eric Martin, owner of Wilderness Voyageurs of Ohiopyle, which is among the outfitters that take whitewater rafting trips down the Cheat River.

The river had a legacy of a “ridiculous amount of acid mine drainage” and timber cutting that didn’t always employ best practices, Martin said.

Remediation efforts spearheaded by conservation groups like the Friends of the Cheat have improved the quality of the water and the fishery, he said.

“It’s the largest undammed watershed east of the Mississippi River and spectacular, unique place,” Martin said.

Rafting and kayaking is done mostly in the spring when rains create class 4 and greater rapids, he said.

“It’s mostly known as a spring trip for big water, every bit as much action as the Gauley (River). It’s a springtime run because there’s no dam. We run primarily in the spring when rain brings water — a class 4, 4-plus trips,” Martin said.

A 1,361-acre section of the 3,800 acre canyon that surrounds the river is owned by the Conservancy, which is leasing it to the state, Fisher said.

The Conservation Fund will eventually transfer the remaining 2,500 acres to the DNR, which will manage it as a part of the other recreational land it owns along the lower Cheat River, Simonelli said.

Public and private funding was used to purchase the land.

Private sources included a $2.6 million donation from the Charlotte Ryde estate and a combined $1 million donation from Warburg Pincus and Antero Resources to the Nature Conservancy.

Public money came from a package of grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund and the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund, as well as mitigation dollars.