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Wilderness Expansion Proposed for West Virginia


A pair of bills introduced in Congress aim to expand the federal Wilderness designation to West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest.

West Virginia Third District Congressman Nick Rahall, who chairs the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, introduced legislation in the House of Representatives and Senators Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller unveiled nearly identical measures in the Senate.   The bills call for adding 47,000 acres of public land to the existing Wilderness areas of West Virginia.   

The legislation would expand the existing Otter Creek, Dolly Sods, and Cranberry Wilderness Areas.   Additionally, four new areas would be added; Big Draft, Cheat Mountain, Roaring Plains West, and Spice Run.  

“Inclusion of these sites in and nearby federally protected wilderness areas puts them “on the map” for those seeking an adventure in nature. Attracting these visitors is one of the keys to future economic growth in West Virginia,” said Senator Byrd upon introducing the legislation.

“The absolute importance of this legislation is easy to see if you’ve ever visited one of these sites. Just ask anyone who has hiked through Dolly Sods when the blueberry bushes are in bloom, or someone who has rested near one of Spice Run’s clear streams,” Rockefeller said. “These are Mountain State treasures that deserve our protection.”

Sportsmen’s groups in West Virginia almost universally oppose the proposals and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources does not support most. 

The DNR accepted the U.S. Forest Service plan to extend wilderness protection to additional acreage on the Cranberry Wilderness Area and a new area around Dry Fork.     However, the agency charged with managing the state’s wildlife is fearful the new management prescriptions on the other areas will hinder the ability to restore acid laden trout streams or actively work to enhance wildlife habitat on the forest.  The latest proposal comes as a shock top brass at DNR.

"All we know about Rahall’s proposal is what we read in the paper," said DNR Wildlife Chief Curtis Taylor.  "We were not contacted."

Sources tell MetroNews, that the Manchin Administration is not going to take the proposal lying down.   The governor has made no public comment about the Wilderness designation, but is believed to be discussing the matter with the DNR staff.

The West Virginia Council of Trout unlimited is opposed to the additional wilderness largely for the same reasons.    The West Virginia Wildlife Federation, a collaboration of sportsmen’s organizations, has also taken a position in opposition to the Wilderness management prescription.

"West Virginia DNR has determined conclusively that wildlife populations in wilderness areas decline over time," said Dennis Labare of Upper Tract who’s with the West Virginia Wildlife Federation and West Virginia Camo Coalition. "They’re highly restricted access, on foot only, not even a bicycle or a wheel cart for a deer, make them poor if not non-existent hunting opportunities."

Among the strongest advocates of the wilderness expansion in the state is the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition.    The group has actively lobbied for additional wilderness lands and considers the introduction of the bills in Congress a milestone.   However, the organization laments it isn’t more.

“We have a long proud tradition of protecting our state’s wild and wonderful forests and we owe a great debt of gratitude to our Congressional delegation for coming together to protect these special places,” said Dave Saville, Coordinator of the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition. “While we support this new legislation, we are deeply disappointed that special areas like Seneca Creek, Roaring Plains East and North and the East Fork of the Greenbrier areas have been left out of this proposal."

Byrd and Rockefeller tout their bill as one that could increase ecotourism in the state.  However, Labare counters the history of wilderness areas shows they are of little value economically when compared to the multi-Million dollar hunting industry in West Virginia.

"Wilderness is the least visited land use prescription on the national forest per the U.S. Forest Service’s own survey data available on-line."  Said Labare.


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