Cheat Canyon Purchase Will Benefit Public

Conservation groups partner with DNR for $7M, 3.8K-acre deal

Morgantown Dominion Post - 13 April 2104
By Jim Bissett

Right off the postcard.

With its striking mountain vistas and white-capped river flowing below, Cheat Canyon is one of the more iconic examples of West Virginia geography.

In the months ahead, a lot of that geography will be open to hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts like never before.

A total of 3,800 acres of canyon land was purchased to be used for recreation and as a nature preserve, groups behind the sale announced this weekend.

The Conservation Fund and The Nature Conservancy partnered with the state Division of Natural Resources (DNR) in the $7 million deal.

Both the fund and conservancy are nonprofit watchdog groups that buy and maintain such undeveloped properties for the purpose of keeping their ecosystems and geological integrity intact.

Patience and persistence had to rule in this deal, said Rodney Bartgis, an environmental scientist and director of The Nature Conservancy’s West Virginia chapter.

“We made our first offer on the land in 1976,” Bartgis said, “so we’re quite proud the deal is now done.”

The Nature Conservancy will keep 1,300 acres as a nature preserve.

During the next two years, the remaining land will be transferred to the state DNR, which will manage it as part of the public recreation lands in the lower Cheat River.

As in any other real estate transaction, Bartgis said, the deal was driven by three factors: Location, location and location.

Those 3,800 acres run along a 7-mile stretch of the Cheat River as it winds through the canyon, Bartgis said. That makes the land on either side of the river a gold coast in a sea of Mountain State green.

“Being able to acquire 7 miles of river in the eastern U.S. is becoming the kind of thing that’s unheard of,” he said. “This is going to be important to the rafting community and to the people who just like the scenery.”

Bartgis said a good portion of the 3,800 acres should be available for public use sometime in the fall, once all the dotted lines are signed for the paperwork.

“At this point, we’ve picked up the property,” he said. “That’s the first big part. The second big part is getting everything under state ownership for the hiking trails.”

Iconic land

Picking up property is how The Nature Conservancy came to be in West Virginia in the first place.

In 1960, Charlie Baer, a WVU ecology professor, got a group of colleagues to go in on the purchase — at $5 an acre — of a 250-acre parcel of Cranesville Swamp, a Preston County wetland formed 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.

The group turned their purchase into an outdoor classroom. Three years later, in 1963, they formed a West Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

The chapter has gone on the acquire more than 120,000 acres of what Bartgis calls “iconic land” in West Virginia — from stretches of the New River Gorge, to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area to the most recent Cheat Canyon purchase.

The chapter last October celebrated its 50th anniversary by honoring Baer as a “conservation hero” for the evening.

Baer, who was 94 and sporting a goatee, leaned back in his wheelchair and enjoyed the evening.

He said he knew the chapter would be around 50 years down the line from its first days in 1963.

“I wasn’t sure I’d be,” he said, chuckling.