The sun burned through the thick fog on a recent Saturday morning as the Cheat Mountain Salamander Train rolled down the tracks, through the deciduous forest and into the red spruce as it headed to the former location of Spruce.
During the nine-hour ride, covering more than 128 miles, Rodney Bartgis, West Virginia director of the Nature Conservancy, served as narrator, pointing out the natural history of the Shaver's Fork and stories of conservation taking place in the area. The train ride was just one of this year's celebrations of the Nature Conservancy's 50-year celebration in West Virginia.
"It is easy for some of us in West Virginia to take our forests for granted," Bartgis said. "Today, we are traveling through a mixed forest of oaks, maples, magnolias and dogwoods. These are some of the most diverse deciduous forests on earth. That means there are more types of plants, animals and trees than anywhere else except China."
Bartgis said the trip starts in Elkins with an elevation of 1,900 feet and travels through Bowden, Cheat Bridge before reaching Spruce.
"Shaver's Fork is the highest big river in eastern North America east of the Mississippi River," Bartgis said. "As a result, it is one of the coldest and most unusual rivers in the area. That is why it is of such interest to conservationists."
Bartgis said the climate and weather make the area special.
"We are on land that is part of the Monongahela National Forest clear up to the town of Spruce," Bartgis said. "So what makes this particularly special is the climate is pretty cold. We are in the snowiest part of North America south of New York. In the snowiest winters, there will be more than 300 inches of snow up in the mountains. Snowshoe Ski Resort at the very head of the Shaver's Fork River has an average snowfall of 150 to 170 inches a snow a year. In recent years, they have had more than 200 inches of snow a year. It is at the same latitude as Washington, D.C.
"The area also gets lots of rain. Between 60 and 80 inches of rain fall in these mountains each year. Elkins gets more rain than Seattle and gets as many foggy days as Seattle. It is the second foggiest town in the Eastern United States."
"In 1861, just East of here, there was a Union fort during the Civil War," Bartgis continued. "It was the highest fort with an elevation of 4,000 feet. On August 12, 1861, they had a snow that accumulated on the ground. In September, they had problems with their horses freezing to death. Also that September, the Union Army was attacked by Confederate Forces under Robert E. Lee. It was the first battle he was in direct command of during the Civil War. Robert E. Lee's camp was in the South end of the Tygart Valley. In August, one of his soldiers wrote that 'it rained for 32 days that August.'"
Bartgis said the train trip was a different way to share the group's successes.
"We have completed so many years of conservation and protected so much land up here, and we are still involved in restoring the ecosystem up here," Bartgis said. "We thought the train would be a great venue to share this with people and let them learn about our group. It is an unusual venue, but the people at the Durbin and Greenbrier Railroad were very accommodating to our request. Some of our members came along, and public tourists also have the opportunity to learn about this mountain and our conservation work."
Bartgis said the Nature Conservancy is active in all 50 states and 30 countries.
"This summer we had some photography workshops throughout the state," Bartgis said. "We are also working on another project around Gandee Creek to help improve the trout habitat there."
According to a Nature Conservancy press release, "the group started gaining strength in October, 1960, when a small group of students and faculty from West Virginia University launched private land conservation in West Virginia. On that day, this unassuming group of conservation heroes worked through The Nature Conservancy, a national group just getting started, to purchase what's now known as Cranesville Swamp Preserve, near Morgantown, in order to establish an outdoor classroom for nature study. Just three years later, in 1963, the Conservancy established a permanent foothold in the state when the West Virginia Chapter was chartered."
Today the Nature Conservancy is the most successful private land trust in the state-one that's grown to protect some 120,000 acres of the state's finest natural areas. For decades they have been vigilantly strategic in identifying conservation targets-now iconic areas like Panther Knob, Slaty Mountain and Brush Creek- as is evidenced by the establishment of the West Virginia Natural Heritage Program, which catalogues the state's natural assets.
The Cheat Mountain Salamander is found only in West Virginia on Cheat Mountain up to Blackwater Falls. It is now nowhere else on earth. The Cheat Mountain Salamander is on the endangered species list as a threatened species.
"Under a spruce tree, needles accumulate," Bartgis said. "There are truffles that live in the soil under spruce trees. The Northern Flying Squirrel lives in spruce forests. The squirrel does not eat from the tree tops, but digs up the truffles beneath the spruce trees. It had been on the endangered species list, but enough conservation has been completed that it has been taken off of the list, showing the success of the conservation list. Those truffles are underground, and cannot spread their spores. They rely on the flying squirrel to dig them up, eat them and spread the spores around. Those spruce are stress for nutrients, and the way they get more nutrients are from the fungi that interact with the roots of the spruce. The spruce trees need the truffles that the squirrels dig up and eat, and the squirrels only live in the spruce trees. So it shows how connected things are and how if you break one piece of that chain, it is hard to but everything back together."
Goals for the next 50 years for the group include creating a landscape where energy is developed sustainably; protecting restoring and connecting public forestland; making major headway in eradicating harmful pests and diseases; and helping safeguard nature in the face of climate change.
Kent Mason, a photographer and conservationist from Dry Fork, came along on the train Saturday to take photos.
"I am retired now and just do this for fun," Mason said. "I wanted to see this area and take photos. I wanted to come because Rodney is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to nature."
Dr. Gretchen Boise traveled from Virginia to make the nine-hour journey and learn about conservation in West Virginia.
"I came because I got something in the mail from the Nature Conservancy," Boise said. "I am very interested in taking trips and meeting people. I like trips that teach lessons. Everyone had a great time today and learned about conservation.
"I am a legacy club member of the Nature Conservancy," Boise said. "I may move to West Virginia and am interested to learn more about the state. In general, the trip was fun. I would encourage people to join the Nature Conservancy. It is a class act."
Pam Byrne, trustee for the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, said she was introduced to the group by a book she read.
"The author named four or five organizations that are the most credible," Byrne said. "The Nature Conservancy was one of the five that was doing good work. They were large enough that they could tap into other sources. If they needed to do large land deals, they were able to do that. They have a larger support base and can share ideas on what is working in conservation nationally and internationally. The depth of their resources is unparalleled."
The Nature Conservancy is always looking for volunteers.
"Our field trips are led by our volunteers," Bartgis said. "We are also looking for folks to help us momentarily. More information is available online at nature.org."
The main celebration for the 50th anniversary of the West Virginia Nature Conservancy is slated for Oct. 25 in Morgantown at the Waterfront. During this event, folks will have the opportunity to meet people that are conservation leaders in the Nature Conservancy and people that have helped the agency achieve their conservation successes throughout the years.
Details are available by calling Amy Martin in the Elkins Office at 304-637-0160.