ROWLESBURG, W.Va. - Tucked away in the rocks of north-central West Virginia is the secret to a multi-million dollar conservation effort - a threetooth snail that actually has just one tooth.
Cheat Canyon, the only place on Earth that the federally listed as threatened Cheat threetooth snail calls home, will be protected for future generations by a conservation partnership that includes The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
The groups announced the partnership on Thursday. When the $7 million project is completed, it will conserve most of the canyon not already included in Cooper's Rock State Forest and Snake Hill Wildlife Management Area.
Ogden Newspapers photo by Rebecca Olsavsky
Rodney Bartgis, West Virginia director for The Nature Conservancy, overlooks Cheat River from the Allegheny Trail.
The canyon, a deep gorge through which the Cheat River flows between Rowlesburg in Preston County to Cheat Lake in Monongalia County, is a popular whitewater rafting destination and home to diverse wildlife such as the endangered Indiana bat.
Within the Cheat, the threatened threetooth snail lives in deep, cool rocky habitats often identifiable by their coverage from rhododendrons. According to WVDNR Wildlife Specialist Craig Stihler, the snail's name can be misleading - it has one tooth on its shell, not three.
The tooth keeps snail-eating beetles from pulling the creature out of its protective flat shell.
Stihler said the quarter-sized Cheat threetooth snail never ventures more than a meter - a little more than three feet - from its habitat.
Acquiring a 7-mile stretch of one of West Virginia's most iconic landscapes turned out to be no small feat, as there have been various conservation efforts under way since 1976. This particular effort has been in the works for the past five years.
In partnership with The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund acquired 3,800 acres along the Cheat River. The Conservation Fund negotiated the purchase from The Forestland Group, a timber investment firm that currently owns the property. The Nature Conservancy is providing $3 million in private funding and is acquiring 2,300 acres of the property, and will retain 1,300 acres as the new Charlotte Ryde Nature Preserve, funded from a bequest from the estate of Charlotte Ryde. The DNR will acquire the remaining acreage - about 2,500 acres - to complement existing public recreation lands on the lower Cheat River.
Additional funding comes from money dedicated for land conservation from the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund, a $1.5 million grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, and $400,000 from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
"Private, state and federal funds used for conservation not only leverage each other; they also reflect the national significance of the state's land, water and wildlife resources, the commitment of West Virginia's citizens through our public investment in our 'Wild and Wonderful' outdoors, and the creativity to bring together various partners to go the distance and reach this milestone," said Reggie Hall, West Virginia state director for The Conservation Fund.
Hall thanked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for recognizing the value of the landscape to West Virginians.
"We are very lucky that a lot of things came together," added Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.
Bartgis believes that without the Cheat threetooth snail's need for protection, gathering the proper funding for the project would have proven near impossible. Curtis Taylor, chief of the WVDNR Wildlife Resources Section, said every management decision the group makes moving forward will center on the question, "Is this good or bad for the snail?"
Along with working to protect the snail's habitat, the groups also are considering a plan to re-open a section of the Allegheny Trail that had been turned into a logging road.
"It's not a matter of opening a gate," Bartgis said, citing trail uses, safety regulations and funding terms as items to consider beyond maintaining the snail's habitat.
In terms of connecting the trail to the Cheat River, the groups are treading carefully on the idea of developing additional put-ins or take-outs for fishermen and whitewater rafters to have increased access to the water. Steve Brown, stream restoration program administrator for the DNR, said there are limited places for such access. One possible spot, located between the rapids of Big Nasty and Even Nastier, already shows the remains of a path to the river. Plus, the access point doesn't feature a prime snail habitat.
The river, having dealt with mine drainage over the years, is steadily recovering because of the decades of work and millions of dollars in investments by local people, state agencies, and groups such as Friends of the Cheat.
Friends of the Cheat Executive Director Amanda Pitzer believes the true sign of success is when visitors can walk down to the river and catch a fish. As a population of smallmouth bass is growing as a result of investments to improve water quality, Pitzer's vision of success is becoming a reality.
"Over 20 years we've worked with many partners. We're seeing the Cheat River come back," Pitzer said about efforts to mitigate the acid mining drainage problem. "The water quality is only going to get better."
Although Bartgis emphasized "there's a fair amount of work to go," the Cheat Canyon conservation partnership is ready to progress carefully with projects that will conserve the area for wildlife to live and outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy - even if it moves at a snail's pace.