Nature Conservancy marks 50 years in West Virginia

MORGANTOWN – West Virginia is one of the most ecologically-diverse places on our planet, and over the past 50 years The Nature Conservancy has championed the effort to protect and preserve the state’s most unique and precious natural areas.

But challenges over the next half-century will continue to grow, Conservancy officials noted Friday, and the organization must continue to collaborate with all groups and use science and education to ensure West Virginia remains “Wild and Wonderful.”

The conservancy’s West Virginia chapter, based in Elkins, celebrated its 50th anniversary Friday during an event at The Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown. Several hundred guests gathered to honor the organization’s work, which began in the early 1960s when a group of West Virginia University professors and students worked through The Nature Conservancy, then a newly created national organization, to purchase and preserve Cranesville Swamp in Preston County.

That purchase jump-started an initiative that today includes 120,000 acres of West Virginia’s most precious land being protected. The conservancy’s private preserves are found from Ice Mountain in Hampshire County to the Slaty Mountain Shale Barren in Monroe County.

Retired WVU professor Charles Baer, one of the organization’s founding members, expressed his appreciation for all that’s been done since he and others started the effort to preserve West Virginia’s unique natural areas.

“I’m really amazed at how this has all come together over the past 50 years,” Baer said. “More and more people are waking up to the fact that what we do to the environment today can have impacts for generations to come. I’m so pleased to be able to be here to celebrate such a joyous occasion.”

But much work remains for the organization. Mark Burget, executive vice president of The Nature Conservancy and the conservancy’s managing director for North America, noted those challenges as he spoke about West Virginia’s importance to the world.

“West Virginia is not a normal case for The Nature Conservancy, it’s a very special part of the world. It is one of two or three of the most important spots for the diversity of life on Earth, right here, right where you’ve been working for 50 years. The work you’ve been doing, the projects you’ve done over the years are so important,” he said.

“There also are some big challenges in West Virginia,” Burget added, pointing to, among other concerns, energy extraction. “If The Nature Conservancy, working all over the world in 40 countries, if we can’t get it right here, then we don’t have a whole lot of hope for the future elsewhere, in a lot of other challenging places.”

Rodney Bartgis heads the Conservancy’s West Virginia chapter. He thanked all those that have worked over the years to protect nature, and recognized 50 individuals – including the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd – as the organization’s “Conservation Heroes.”

He also discussed the state’s challenges – both past and present.

“When our families first settled here, we started to alter the forest by converting them to farmland and by logging. Then the industrial revolution came, and we began to alter the streams. Now with energy development, we’re altering the very mountains themselves. If we’re to leave a legacy to future generations of beautiful mountains, healthy streams and healthy forests, we need to take action now,” Bartgis said. “We’ve protected 120,000 acres in 50 years, and that’s an accomplishment to be proud of. But we convert more than twice that amount of land from undeveloped to developed in West Virginia every decade, and the pace is only increasing. …

“The Nature Conservancy has a vision, it’s a vision of a Wild and Wonderful West Virginia that’s defined by our beautiful mountains, our healthy forests and clear flowing streams that together will continue to support and sustain clean air, clean water and healthy and prosperous communities for generations to come.”

He also outlined steps to make that vision become reality. “We need to broaden our approach to conservation in the future … by using science to better understand the future scale, scope and impact of development. We need to use a collaborative approach … to reduce impacts. We need to restore forests and streams, inspire and grow the next generation … and foster a better understanding of how the natural world sustains us all.”

Pam Byrne, vice chairman of The Nature Conservancy’s West Virginia chapter, said she sees a bright future for the local organization. “We will still continue to primarily be a land trust organization, but we will expand beyond that,” she said. “I see us focusing more and more on conservation and policy issues, and also tackling bigger scientific topics that people are really starting to take an interest in.

“We also need to continue to collaborate with all interested parties. The Nature Conservancy is in a really unique position to bring a lot of people together who would not normally talk to each other, to present the science, right down the middle, and then to keep people engaged.”