Ways To Protect Land

Land is part of the earth. We did not create it. In a sense, we cannot own it; yet, legally, our name is on a title at the courthouse and that piece of ground belongs to us. There are many threats to the land, and many ways to protect it.

Cacapon & Lost River Land Trust's 25th

Cacapon and Lost River Land Trust celebrated its 25th anniversary in September 2015 at North River Mills, with visits from original board members Natalie Black and Jim Matheson, and talks by botanist Rodney Bartgis, ecologist George Constanz and local historian Rob Wolford.  Because private landowners value the natural beauty and purity of their land,  50 owners have put over 13,000 acres under protective easements with the Trust. It’s now in the top 10% of conservation Trust landholdings in the country!  cacapon.org

Save Our Squirrel: WV Flying Squirrel Update

West Virginia environmental groups continue their fight in court and in the legislature to preserve wild places and wild things. Friends of Blackwater Canyon lost a court battle in August 2012 to keep endangered species protection for “Ginny,” the Northern Virginia Flying Squirrel. The beautiful little gliding animals are a key part of the ecosystem in high spruce country. Strict endangered species laws, even though they focus on a certain plant or animal, help to protect the environment of a whole area. The Blackwater area, which includes the canyon, Shavers Fork River, and historic towns of Thomas and Davis, has been plagued by excessive logging and development, and plans for Corridor H.

FOB’s request for a rehearing was denied on Nov. 1 but they’re still asking flying squirrel fans to keep lobbying President Obama. They say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service must begin at once to collect baseline data on squirrel populations, and to set aside habitat – or else Ginny faces extinction. saveblackwater.org

WV Seen As Stronghold Against Climate Change

A June 4, 2012 Charleston Gazette article by Rick Steelhammer shows the highland forest along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern West Virginia has been identified as one of the natural strongholds in the U.S. northeast and southeastern Canada where plants and wildlife will be able withstand the growing impacts of global warming. A study, funded by Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the Nature Conservancy looked for landscapes with the most diverse topographies, elevation ranges, and geologies.

Key areas named in the Monongahela National Forest: Dolly Sods and Cranberry Wilderness, the Seneca Creek Backcountry and portions of Cheat Mountain--plus the New River Gorge and parts of the Greenbrier Valley. Natural corridors in the Potomac Highlands help link the larger areas: the east side of the Cacapon River watershed and the Allegheny Front along the west rim of the South Branch Valley, according to Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy's West Virginia office.

"If we can keep these strongholds intact and connected, it increases the odds for plants and animals to persist through climate change," Bartgis said.

"If you have enough land with enough variety in elevation, geology and landforms, not broken up by things like highways, when it starts to warm up, plants and animals can move upslope or to a different face of the slope they're on."

Cacapon-Lost River Land Trust is negotiating with landowners who want to keep their land in farm or forest to be part of this safe refuge for plants and wildlife. Landowners can sometimes receive grants and tax breaks for voluntarily deeding restrictions on development. To learn about putting an easement on your land or helping them raise funds to protect land, go to the land trust website cacapon.org

Is the Gas Boom Really Hot Air?

Meanwhile, insiders in the gas industry told the New York Times in mid-2011 that they were cautioning investors that the gas boom may prove very shallow.

Company data for more than 10,000 wells in three major shale gas formations raised further questions about the industry’s prospects. While there’s a vast amount of gas in the formations, can companies really afford to extract it? Maybe the only way is for them was, indeed, to get a free public pass on taxes and regulations!

Might it not be wise to forget the fracking, and go straight from coal and nuclear to conservation and solar and more efficient housing, town planning and transportation?

Mountaintop Removal: Fossil Fuel In Retreat?

In November 2012, one of the largest surface coal mine operators in the region, Patriot Coal, agreed to stop large scale mountain-top removal mining and eventually phase out surface mining all together. wvpubcast.org/newsarticle.aspx?id=27502

In exchange, Patriot received an additional year to comply with selenium treatment requirements at 42 mines and facilities and an additional year and three months for its Hobet mine.

“This settlement shows is that, if a company is forced to pay the true cost of its business mountain top removal is not economical," said Joe Lovett, attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, an environmental law firm based in Lewisburg. “Mining in Appalachia has become too expensive not because of environmental regulations but because the easy coal is gone," Lovett said. “You have to blow up more of the mountain to get to it."

Environmentalists expressed hope that, as long as coal is being mined, more miners will be employed underground, where work is more labor intensive. More at appalmad.org.

Gas and Heartburn on the Land: Look before You Lease

Having run amok through Grant County, gas companies in 2008 began looking under the surface in Hampshire County. Friends of the Cacapon River reports that company "land-men" have come knocking on doors west of Cacapon Mountain, looking for land to lease.

West Virginia has a long history of landowners losing their mineral rights to greedy energy companies. They often get away with a fraction of what these rights are worth. And their underground activities can affect what you do on top-like pollution of your water well, gas and oil leaks in your fields and woods, and uninvited access roads.

Longtime Charleston environmental lawyer Dave McMahon, and West Virginia Citizens Action Group director Gary Zuckett, a landowner himself affected by gas well drilling, have teamed up to provide advice to landowners. WVSORO (West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization), only a year and a half old, now has 600 members. It puts out a guidebook for landowners on the rights, and has spoken at Farm Bureau and Woodland Owners meetings, and at the state legislature. You can download or order their Surface Owners Guide to Oil and Gas at the WV SORO website So … Look before you Lease!

GW Forest Planning: Get Your Two Cents In, With One Eye Open

Do you hike, watch birds, hunt or fish in the national forest, or appreciate the role of public forests in giving us clean air and water? The George Washington National Forest Planning process continues, with public workshop meetings in November 2008, December 2008, and January 2009 in Verona and Lexington, VA. They're dealing with issues like managing wilderness areas for people, plants and wildlife; roadless areas; where and how to cut timber, and how to manage when private owners of subsurface minerals under the National Forest want to get coal, oil and gas. The plan was last revised in 1993. The environmental legal group Earthjustice has challenged the Bush administration's revisions to the national forest planning process itself, saying recent rules give US Forest Service officials too much discretion over whether environmental impact statements and wildlife protection are needed. More info at Virginia Forest Watch. To get your 2 cents in on the latest forest plan, go to the National Forest website. The closest national forest ranger office to our area is in Edinburg, VA, 540-984-4101.

Boats Cause River Shoreline Erosion

Fast boats and jet skis send out wakes, and the repeated wave action from them undercuts the shore so it falls in. This is a slow and steady nuisance to many. Property owners lose several inches or feet of their shoreline each year. The extra dirt clogs streams just like the dirt running off construction sites. Some landowners try laying rock to protect their banks, but this just speeds the flow, causing more erosion and mud flow downstream, setting up loud calls for dredging. For fish, it can be life threatening; it buries their eggs, covers up other stream bottom life that fish feed on, and clogs their gills.

The website BoatWakes.info cites several studies which say a typical speedboat wake washes away two slices of shore 1/200 inch thick. At 15 mph, it goes 1,300 feet per minute, which surprisingly is over a square foot of erosion per minute. An expensive loss for property owners and deadly to life in the river and Bay. If you're out on the river in an area deep enough for speedboats, see if the river edge is eroded and if landowners have laid down rock barriers. What's the cure? There is none, but it would help if boats would simply slow down. If anyone out there has a newsletter, or mailing list of waterfront landowners, could you alert landowners to the problem, and ask boaters to SLOW DOWN?

Conservation Easements

A landowner voluntarily files a document in the courthouse called an conservation easement, which restricts later development and subdivision. Some owners allow, say, 10 out of 100 acres to be developed and the rest kept in forest or farmland. Some allow for timber cutting on all or part of the land. The easement runs with the land, applying to all subsequent owners unless a future judge overturns it, or the government takes it by eminent domain. Usually the owner names a nonprofit group called a land trust to supervise compliance in the future. Because the owner has given away some of his or her land rights to the land trust, this is considered a tax-deductible donation. Property and estate taxes can be reduced because the easement reduces the value of the land.

A "postmortem easement" filed within a year after a landowner's death helps the heirs by greatly reducing inheritance taxes. In a "bargain sale", a conservation easement makes the land less expensive for the buyer while reducing capital gains taxes for the seller. You should ask your accountant and attorney to explain how these tax savings will work best for you.

Both of these kinds of deals were facilitated in the past three years by the Cacapon & Lost River Land Trust, which operates in the Capon, Lost, and North River watershed of Hardy, Hampshire and Morgan Counties and now has facilitated landowners in permanently protecting over 6,000 acres in the watershed. Nancy Ailes credits enthusiastic landowner and hunter Carlton Mills for spreading the good word among his neighbors, who were eager to participate once they found that it is possible to protect their land and still use it. Because of his work, over 4,000 contiguous acres near Yellow Spring West Virginia have been preserved for hunting. For info, click on:

The Cacapon and Lost Rivers Land Trust
The West Virginia Land Trust
The Potomac Conservancy - Land Protection
Land Trust of the Eastern Panhandle

Farmland Protection Program

Farm protection boards can get money from a real estate transfer tax or a federal program. They pay farmers for easements to protect "prime and unique farming soils." To find out where your county stands and whom to contact, call Pat Bowen, conservation specialist for USDA in Phillipi, 304-457-1118

Forest Legacy Program

A third of West Virginia, from I-81 to the west edge of Preston, Tucker, Randolph and Pocahontas Counties, is proposed for US Forest Service Legacy funds, to pay for easements which will protect land for timber production. Applications will be received as soon as the national office approves the program. Approved landowners will develop and follow forest management plans.

Clint Hogbin of Berkeley County, who comes from a long line of farmers, has led efforts to create state laws and county farmland boards to preserve the disappearing farmland. Now, Clint and the Land Trust of the Eastern Panhandle are working on saving forests too. Federal money is available through the US Forest Service in the Forest Legacy Program to purchase conservation easements from willing forest landowners. A conservation easement allows landowners to keep on owning the land and compensates them for restrictions on development rights.

WV Division of Forestry, WV Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund are pondering which mountains of WV will be eligible for forest protection as Forest Legacy Areas. Clint asked area forest lovers to email the Conservation Fund and ask them to include the forests of North Mountain, Sleepy Creek Mountain, Third Hill Mountain, Back Creek Watershed, Cacapon Mountain, Cacapon River Watershed, Short Mountain, and Sideling Hill Mountain.

Please send an email to wvforests@conservationfund.org and ask for these forest areas and mountains of the Eastern Panhandle to be included as a Forest Legacy Area. Public meetings were held in March and more are planned. Contact Clint Hogbin at crhogbin@cs.com and the Eastern Panhandle Land Trust at: Margarita Provenzano margarita69@peoplepc.com. For more details on meeting locations or more information about the Forest Legacy Program Assessment of Need for the State of West Virginia contact toll free 1-866-744-2344, or visit West Virginia's Forest Legacy website and click on WV Forest Legacy Program. For general information on the Forest Legacy Program visit the US Forest Service's Forest Legacy Program website.

Historic Buildings

In Fall 2003 the Hampshire County Historical Society sponsored another in a series of historic house tours. These are always a fun way to spend a fall day, getting to know more of your neighbors and catching a glimpse of history into the bargain. This year the tour featured buildings in the Yellow Spring area: the Octagon house, the old Willow Schoolhouse, the Asa Cline House B&B (which is benignly haunted), and six other lovely churches and homes.

Renovating and occupying an old "home place" instead of building a new one helps keep hunting areas and wildlife paths intact. Building a new house in virgin forest removes 18 acres of hunting area from use, since you cannot fire a gun with 500 feet of a home in West Virginia. This summer there were numerous black bear sightings on Cacapon River Road, and the first ever sighting on the hiking paths in the Cacapon Springs Resort. This is probably due to the sale and subsequent development of thousands of acres of Westvaco land along Route 259 that was heavily advertised in the Washington Post. We were lucky that this area was subdivided into "only" 20-acre plots, and not 10- or 5-acre ones. The impact on the local wildlife was certainly alarming as it was. The specter of meeting a bear at 4:00 in the afternoon (or any time) was a bit disturbing. The last time I have seen a black bear on River Road was at 6:00 in the morning five years ago.

Maintaining an old house isn't for everyone, but it can be very rewarding. Rescuing an old house from demolition or decay is a bit like helping a damsel in distress. The house has a personality one has to adapt to. After all, it was here before you were even the proverbial gleam in your parents' eyes!

At this time there are officially only six structures in Hampshire County on the National Register of Historic Places, but many more have the potential to be added. This "Historic Property" status gives some protection from road widening and other government projects, and some loan and grant money is available for repairs. Homes are eligible that meet one or more of these criteria:

  1. Are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history;
  2. Are associated with the lives of people significant in our past;
  3. Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction;
  4. Have yielded, or are likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.

The West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office's Division of Culture and History (www.wvculture.org) maintains a separate list of historic properties and can help with the detailed paperwork needed for the National Register. Their National Register Coordinator, Alan Rowe, can be reached at 304-558-0220 or at alan.rowe@wvculture.org.

Hardy County Zoning

In West Virginia many cities have zoning to keep compatible land uses together, but only two counties zone the land outside cities: Jefferson and Fayette. For many, "zoning" is a dirty word, and is regarded as an infringement on a fundamental right to use one's land as one sees fit, regardless of the consequences for one's neighbors. However, these attitudes are beginning to erode.

For a long while the Potomac Highlands has seen the accumulating construction of second homes and retirement homes. More recently, 9/11 and the construction of the Corridor H highway have led to an understandable spurt in land sales. Fears have grown among long-standing residents as well as newcomers that the basic rural character of the region is under threat. In response to these pressures, the Hardy County Commission prepared its first-ever zoning ordinance. Neighboring Hampshire County is exploring similar issues through its enlarged Planning Commission.

The draft ordinance has revealed the somewhat contradictory goals of two strong interests in the community: farmers and developers. The prime bottom land of the Lost River, South Fork and South Branch rivers was reserved for agriculture while agricultural land elsewhere, encompassing most of the rest of the county, was potentially open to even dense sub-division development. Commercial and industrial developments were restricted to the major roadways and the existing industrial parks.

This first draft was criticized at countywide public meetings and sent back for revisions. As of this writing, a new draft has been prepared and will be presented at another series of public meetings in November and December.

Resources and Links

The Cacapon and Lost Rivers Land Trust assists landowners and communities in maintaining healthy rivers, protecting forests and farmland, and preserving rural heritage for the enjoyment and well being of present and future generations.

The Forest Service's Recreation, Wilderness, Urban Forest, and Demographic Trends Research Group has done a Survey of Southern Appalachian Resident's Priorities for National Forest Management. This survey is very interesting — it shows that even people who rarely visit forests still value them highly in their natural state

The Land Trust Alliance is the national leader of the private land conservation movement, promoting voluntary land conservation across the country.

West Virginia Highlands Conservancy watches over the great Monongahela National Forest, Blackwater Canyon, and other wild treasures of our state. This 30 year old group is not afraid of economic dialog. Pages of interest include their resolutions against the PATH and TrAIL power lines.

The Potomac Conservancy: Want to know more about the Potomac watershed, and how to take care of your land and ultimately protect it? Potomac Conservancy has an office now in downtown Winchester, Virginia at 19 West Cork Street Suite 201. Contact Kelly Watkinson, Director of Headwaters Conservation at Watkinson@potomac.org or 540-667-3606. The office has informative pamphlets for landowners and residents about how to live and work alongside rivers and streams, and maintains a network with area groups dealing with nature and environmental issues. The Conservancy works with local land trusts and willing private owners to put conservation easements on land .

Land Trust of the Eastern Panhandlewas founded and is governed by a volunteer board of local residents from Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties to provide landowners and concerned citizens with a powerful tool to safeguard farmland, open space, scenic views, parkland and historic landscapes for future generations.

The West Virginia Land Trust is protecting the lands that give West Virginia its distinctive character.

Save Our County is Paul Burke's amazing collection of information on planning, sprawl, state environmental laws, based in Jefferson County WV but it is applicable to many other areas as well.

Coalition for Smarter Growth's mission is to ensure that transportation and development decisions accommodate growth while revitalizing communities, providing more housing and travel choices, and conserving natural and historic areas.

West Virginia Environmental Council is a Charleston, W.Va. based citizens lobby for the environment and support sustainable economic development.