New project will restore land bridge

ELKINS – Working closely with a local landowner and other conservation partners, The Nature Conservancy has protected 555 acres of West Virginia high country that will provide a habitat connection between some of the wildest lands within the Monongahela National


Permanent conservation easements on Steve Callan’s Gandy Ranch properties in Randolph County will ensure that the land is protected from development in perpetuity, and a comprehensive land restoration effort will restore native red spruce forest and tributaries to Gandy Creek – providing habitat for the West Virginia Northern flying squirrel, Cheat Mountain salamander, native brook trout, and other uncommon species.

“This project will protect and restore a ‘land bridge’ that is two to three miles wide, connecting the high country habitats of the Laurel Fork Wilderness and the Seneca Creek Backcountry,” said Keith Fisher, director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. “The property we’re protecting runs along about 1.25 miles of Gandy Creek and reaches all the way up to the 4,636-foot summit of Pharis Knob, one of our state’s highest peaks.”

A conservation easement is a legal agreement restricting certain future uses of the land. This easement, provided by Callen, of Morgantown, through a combination of bargain sale and donation, is binding on all future owners and ensures that the land will remain undeveloped. The property will serve as a corridor for far-ranging species like black bear and connect currently separated populations of flying squirrels. And the habitat restoration project already under way will improve habitat for brook trout in Gandy Creek and improve downstream fishing opportunities.

The Conservancy has been working to protect the land since 2012, when it secured a grant from American Rivers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of a comprehensive initiative to protect and restore rivers in the Potomac Highlands region. Funding sources for land acquisition and habitat restoration also include the West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel Conservation Fund (administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service), and the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the West Virginia In-lieu Fee Mitigation Program (sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection).

In addition to securing the easement, the money will be used to replant spruce and northern hardwood forest, eliminate non-native invasive species, fence out cattle, stabilize eroding banks and add fish habitat structures. Partners on the project, which will be completed next year, include Trout Unlimited, the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, the U.S. Forest Service, Canaan Valley Institute, and the Mountain Institute.

“Through the foresight of this landowner and the support of our partners, we’re protecting an important freshwater resource and the home fishing waters for future generations of West Virginians,” said Fisher. “We’re also providing habitat for a number of iconic Central Appalachian species.”