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Smoke Hole Canyon Deep Inside W.Va.'s Untouched Territory

May 20, 2013
By SEAN HENNEN - Staff Writer , WVweb

Just southwest of Petersburg, W.Va., a long gravel road winds out into the wilds of the Smoke Hole canyon. The drive isn't for the faint of heart; a jostling ride awaits anyone daring enough to attempt the arduous four-mile jaunt only accessible to off-road vehicles.

At the end of the road is a stretch of property 1,126 acres in size that extends along the South Branch of the Potomac River for nearly three miles. It is an untouched place where fields of tall grass sway in the wind, the river winds through towering hillsides, and only a sparse scattering of man-made structures can be seen.

In this part of the canyon, you're as likely to see a bald eagle soar through the air as you are to see another human being walk by. Breathtaking mountain views are as common as the wild bobcats that call the cliff formations home.

All of this property is owned by Edward W. Stifel III, passed down through his family since his grandfather started buying up the land in the 1920s as a summer fishing retreat that most people didn't even know existed.

"My first experience in the Smoke Hole, I was a child," Stifel said. "And I just fell in love with the place."The Property is a combination of natural beauty and remote access have always made the spot ideal for individuals wishing to escape the cacophony of civilization for a few days.

Originally settled during the days of pioneers, the Smoke Hole remained a relatively unestablished area. Farmers in the Big River Valley around Petersburg quickly developed all the best farm land and only those desperate enough traveled into the canyon in search of good farming.

The Smoke Hole remained a difficult area to settle and stayed fairly isolated, garnering a reputation as a place where many people wouldn't go. During the Great Depression, the few people in the canyon started leaving to find better jobs, giving Stifel's grandfather an opportunity to buy up most of what is now the property.

Upon inheriting the land in the 1970s, Stifel III began the commercial operation of the Smoke Hole Lodge. Keenly aware of the desire for a secluded getaway, Stifel opened his lodge and land to parties interested in basking in the undisturbed tranquility of the canyon.

"The outdoors has been a life-long interest of mine," Stifel said. "Over the years ... I restored the old house and worked the land. It's been a real labor of love." For guests, the charm of the Smoke Hole Lodge and the surrounding canyon was its virtual inaccessibility. Most cars wouldn't stand a chance of surviving the ride in, so Stifel would meet guests in Petersburg and personally drive them out the gravel road in his four-wheel drive truck. The only other way of reaching the lodge was down the river by way of canoes and kayaks.

Once on the property, a minimum two-night stay afforded these visitors enough time to relax comfortably nestled in the canyon floor along the river. Hiking, fishing and boating were all activities available to guests staying in the lodge.

Unfortunately, the time and energy needed to profitably operate the Lodge became too much of a burden for Stifel. Several years ago, the lodge was commercially closed.

The Organization

Enter The Nature Conservancy, a private, nonprofit conservation organization based in the United States with projects around the world. The mission of the Conservancy is to preserve plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.

"We are very strategic, very focused on what we do," said Steven J. McCormick, president and chief executive officer of the Conservancy. "We look at whole systems and large areas "very significant properties. We're looking to conserve and protect the last great areas."

The Conservancy was established in 1951 by a group of ecologists from the Ecological Society of America and has since grown into a global organization with chapters and staff in all 50 states and ongoing projects in 26 countries worldwide.

Renowned for their science-based non-confrontational approach to protecting biodiversity, the Conservancy has more than 1 million members and since its inception is responsible for the preservation of more than 13 million acres of land in the U.S.

The Conservancy had been in talks with Stifel for the past eight years about preserving the land. He looked to the organization as one that would properly conserve the land. Stifel and the Conservancy shared a common vision of the Smoke Hole canyon and how it should stay in the future. When he put his property on the market, the Conservancy inquired about buying not the property itself, but rather a conservation easement to the land. Stifel agreed and the Conservancy purchased the easement in April 2004.

"I'm getting on in years and I wanted to make sure it was protected," said Stifel.

"It is a source of great satisfaction to know it will be. "

The Easement

A conservation easement is a flexible legal tool that can be purchased by organizations like the Conservancy to help them protect the land while leaving it in private ownership. The easement is acquired from the landowner and allows the purchasing party to have ultimate say over the use of the land in the future.

In the case of the Conservancy's purchase in Smoke Hole, the easement is an unbreakable document giving the organization right to prohibit any future modifications to the land, including logging, mining and the construction of new buildings. In the hands of the Conservancy, the property will remain undisturbed by man.

"What is great about this particular easement is that it goes on forever," said Rodney Bartgis, state director of the West Virginia branch of the Conservancy. "We look forward to 500-1,000 years of rights to the land. As long as the laws of the United States carry, the only thing that could break this easement is the intervention of the state legislature." The Conservancy purchased the conservation easement of the entire property for an undisclosed amount and will create an endowment fund for long-term conservation management. The Conservancy will also separately raise additional funds to expand conservation efforts in the Smoke Hole.

Purchasing easements and working to have private landowners donate easements is a common practice with the Conservancy. Easements are more cost effective than buying land outright, and because the document keeps land in private ownership, the organization doesn't have to worry about land management like road building or structure upkeep. It's like having a partner to take care of the land.

Acquisition of the Smoke Hole easement is a big step for the Conservancy. The West Virginia branch of the organization is hard at work protecting a number of sites throughout the state including Canaan Valley, Cheat River and Cheat Mountain, Greenbrier Valley and the Dolly Sods wilderness.

The Smoke Hole canyon region is a primary concern in their preservation campaign.

The Land When reviewing the specifics of Smoke Hole, it's easy to see why the Conservancy would want to get involved and help to keep mining and logging companies as far away from this wilderness as possible. The land around Smoke Hole canyon and the Stifel property is ecologically anomalous.

At an elevation of 1,100 feet along the river and extending up to 2,331 feet along the west rim of the canyon (2,470 feet at its highest atop Cave Mountain), the area around this is the very definition of diverse.

"There are so many unique things about this property," Bartgis said.

Storms in the Smoke Hole area are uncommon in that rough weather patterns coming in from the midwest hit the mountains and lose a large amount of their precipitation. This causes the rainfall in Smoke Hole to be equal to that of western Oklahoma, only 30-32 inches per year, making the canyon along the Potomac a dry, prairie-like area - something unheard of in the east.

Another oddity in that part of the country is the limestone bedrock. Much of West Virginia was cleared of its limestone by settlers looking to farm the land. In isolated woodland areas like the Smoke Hole, however, limestone bedrocks still exist.

There is less than five percent of the state that is underlain by limestone. Still, in the natural ecosystems of the forested sections like the Smoke Hole, most of that limestone is still intact. It is believed that the Smoke Hole is the largest area of limestone forest left in this region of the country. Most of the forest soil in the Mountain State is naturally acidic, only growing a certain range of plants. But limestone soil is not acidic and tends to be richer in certain nutrients than other soils, supporting a different type of plant life than commonly found. Plant Life "You get a species mix here that you don't find anywhere else," said Bartgis. "A mix of commonly found plants and prairie species like the Prairie Rocket, Indian Grass and Little Bluestem can be found right along the ridges of this canyon." The prairie regions and associated cedar glades around the Smoke Hole area are the largest groupings of such plant life in the Central Appalachians. This biologically diverse ecosystem supports a number of species restricted to this part of the Appalachian range. Smoke Hole bergamot, a potent member of the mint family, grows only in the area.

The dry, prairie lands along the upper knobs and ridges of the canyon are home to a wealth of typically western plants such as prairie flax and redroot, commonly found on the other side of Mississippi River. The lack of precipitation in the area provides in a tiny haven for these rare species.

Prairie flax especially is a uncommon species that was originally discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition and today is usually found in Minnesota and Montana. It was not thought to exist in the east at all until found in the Smoke Hole canyon. Virginia Nailwort is an unusual, grass-like plant that is only known in 12 places around the world. This species is so infrequent that the small patches found amidst the rocks of the Smoke Hole canyon walls are the largest population of Nailwort on the planet.

Animal Life "There are so many species both plant and animal that are state-rare and globally-rare," Bartgis said. "The Prairie Rocket is state-rare but the Virginia big-eared bat is globally-rare.

"There are a dozen species in Smoke Hole that are globally-rare." The Smoke Hole canyon is home to 40 percent of the world's Virginia big-eared bat population and the largest colony of Indiana bats, another endangered animal in the east. The big-eared bat is a highly sensitive creature that needs precise conditions to hibernate. Disturbance during the hibernation period of this animal could irreparably damage the species.

The area also has a high bear and bobcat population, and is known for its large number of timber rattlesnakes, a species of snake which has been killed off in most areas.

The river bank tiger beetle commonly lives in sandy, cobblestone habitats and can be found along the banks of the Potomac River.

The canyon is a prime area for neotropical migrants, birds that spend their summers in the United States but migrate to Latin American countries during the winter. Warblers, scarlet tanagers and wood brushes have all been in decline because of habitat loss in both North and Latin America, but can find sanctuary within the secluded geography of the Smoke Hole canyon.

Rare animals like the American bald eagle nest in the surrounding hills of the Smoke Hole. The Stifel property has recorded two separate eagle nests on its land. The bald eagle is currently on the endangered species list and is a nationally protected animal. The eagles greatly benefit from the "No Hunting" policy in affect on the property.

The Allegheny woodrat is a squirrel-sized animal that lives in rocky places but has recently been declining throughout much of its range due to a disease epidemic. The disease wiping out the woodrat population has been traced to raccoons, thought it isn't known how the animals are transmitting at an alarming rate.

Rare species of butterfly that live in open, grassy, limestone habitats are perfectly situated in the hills. The Columbine skipper and Cobweb skipper are two particular breeds of butterfly that call this portion of the Smoke Hole home.

"Every distinct living thing - every species - is the culmination of millions of years of perfection,"McCormick said. "From our perspective, nothing is more beautiful, profound, or mysterious then each individual, unique species."Threats Besides the threat of man, the Smoke Hole canyon faces a number of other unseen forces that threaten to damage the fragile ecosystem. Invasions of foreign biological species into the environment can be catastrophic in their effect on local plant and animal life.

Like the Allegheny woodrat that is slowly losing its population to a disease spread by raccoons, other species in the canyon are finding it impossible to co-exist after the introduction of alien diseases, fungi, or even other species.

"That's the insidious nature of non-native, invasive species," said McCormick. "Once they become pervasive, they are nearly impossible to eradicate. Next to habitat alteration, worldwide the biggest problem facing biodiversity is invasive species. It's very much like a cancer that metastasizes." The biggest problem facing the Conservancy is the overwhelming spread of stiltgrass. Stiltgrass is a name familiar to most conservation agencies. Since the breed of Asian grass was accidentally brought into the U.S. during the latter half of the 20th century, the plant has become a major headache for organizations trying to conserve natural resources.

Stiltgrass was first discovered in West Virginia in 1980 and has since become quite a nuisance. The 1996 flood in the Eastern Panhandle of the state spread the stiltgrass seed through the Smoke Hole canyon, and now the grass is the most abundantly growing plant in the wild.

When introduced into an area, Stiltgrass blankets the ground like any other grass and suffocates other plant life that would ordinarily grow close to the ground. Unchecked, the plant can spread in a destructive wave the becomes almost impossible to subside.

Another biological threat to the Smoke Hole is Hemlock Adelgid. This foreign fungus, also from Asia, just recently found its way into the canyon ecosystem and is attacking the Hemlock trees of the area. The fungus coats and then kills the branches of the Hemlock tree.

The Conservancy is currently working in coordination with the National Park Service in finding a way to stop the spread of both Stiltgrass and Hemlock Adelgid. A species of Asian beetle known to survive entirely by eating the Adelgid fungus is being considered for the Smoke Hole area while a solution to the Stiltgrass problem remains as of yet unidentified.

The Future

"This has been something I've had in my mind for 20 years now," said Stifel. "Many people feel it's one of the most beautiful grounds in the West Virginia, full of rare plants and endangered animals. I am thrilled that the property will be protected in its natural state. With the help of an organization like the Conservancy, the future of the Stifel property is in good hands.

Plans for the future include:

Lasting protection of the property's biological and ecological systems.

Use of the property as a platform to engage the U.S. Forest Service and influence the management of its lands in the Smoke Hole

Use of the property to engage private land owners and the local community

Use of the land for developing methods and approaches for addressing invasive weeds in limestone-based ecosystems, forest pests and pathogens in deciduous forests, and impacts on cave systems.

To provide a minimally disturbed baseline condition for upland limestone ecosystems.

While some nearby properties are currently in private ownership, fortunately, much of the surrounding area is owned by the park service. The Stifel property is bordered on three sides by federally owned land that could lead to collaboration between the Conservancy and the park service in the coming years.

Proposed projects for the Conservancy include attacking the invading species problem head on and also focusing on transplanting excess trees to other parts of the canyon in order to stimulate grassland growth.

"The challenge we have always dealt with is how to deal with the urgency of what we do, McCormick said.

"There are many, many social causes, and the problem is ... public awareness. If natural habitats are lost, there is no way to replace them. The challenge is pacing ourselves, making sure we're devoting ourselves to the places that need it."

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