Deep in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains, a collage of wildlands exists that embodies the rugged individualism and rich heritage of Appalachian culture. This patchwork quilt of ridges, valleys, cliffs, and rivers, collectively owned by all Americans, is known as the Monongahela National Forest.
Endearingly referred to as “the Mon” by career forestry officials and outdoor recreationists alike, the spectacular landscapes contained in this sprawling stretch of Appalachia are as diverse as those who walk among their trees. From West Virginia’s low river canyons to its highest and driest peaks, from regenerating landscapes to old-growth forests, the Mon is the central gemstone in the Mountain State’s crown of prized jewels.
Encompassing 921,000 acres of West Virginia’s highlands, the Mon is home to hundreds of unique species and has played host to countless memories. The forest turns 100 this year and folks throughout the region are celebrating its special places while paying homage to its tumultuous history.
The Flood Gates Open
In March of 1907, thrashing brown flood waters carrying car-sized blocks of ice inundated Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 12 people and effectively grinding the gears of the Steel City’s relentless industrial machine to a halt.
The city had flooded before, but this time felt different. Officials scrambled to investigate the flood, sniffing out the source south of the Mason-Dixon Line: the Monongahela River and its mountainous tributaries, including the mighty Cheat River. The clear-cutting spree of the late 1800s had completely denuded West Virginia’s countless slopes. By 1910, only 1.5 million acres of the of the state’s nearly 16 million acres of virgin spruce and hardwood forests remained.
Much to the surprise of American industrialists, mature forests are requisite for flood control. Without trees and their complex web of roots to hold the mountains in place, flash-flood waters drain freely, washing away tons of soil and debris in a moment’s notice.
Four years later, Congress passed the Weeks Act, authorizing governmental purchase of land for watershed protection and natural resource management. In 1915, 7,200 acres just outside of Parsons, West Virginia, were purchased from TJ Arnold. This property, originally called the Monongahela Purchase, became known as the Arnold Tract. On April 28, 1920, President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation designating the Arnold Tract and an additional 47,000 acres as the Monongahela National Forest. “I’ve always referred to the Arnold Tract as the heart of the Mon,” says historian Robert Whetsell. “It still remains an incredibly important piece of land today.”
According to Whetsell, an archaeologist for the United States Forest Service (USFS), the Mon in those early years was a barren wasteland of no value to anyone but the USFS. “After the trees were cut and the logs were removed, the slash was left,” Whetsell says. “Erosion and fires ruined the land, washed it out, and burned it down to the bedrock.”
To prevent another devastating flood, reforestation had to be swift. A nursery in Parsons produced over 22 million tree seedlings between 1929 and 1951 that made their way into soils across the Central Appalachian region. The first major plantation project on the Mon started in 1925 on Canaan Mountain, just outside the timber town of Davis. By 1933, crews had planted over 1.5 million Norway spruce seedlings across 2,400 acres. The Plantation Trail honors that legacy, cutting across the mountainside through an enchanting forest of towering Norway spruce and successional hardwoods.
As the forest grew in biomass and acreage, America’s economy shrank. The height of the Great Depression served as a backdrop for the height of infrastructure growth throughout the Mon. The New Deal saw a frenzy of activity from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) result in a slew of roads, bridges, fire towers, campgrounds, and trails. The CCC camps were also instrumental in the massive reforestation efforts that took place across the Mon. Local master stonemason Patrick Burke worked with “the ‘CC boys,” using stones sourced from across the Mon to construct the famous gateway on Old Route 33 near Elkins. “The CCC coming in was the best thing that happened to the national forests,” Whetsell says. “The ability of government funding to create that recreation infrastructure simply didn’t exist before the Depression.”
By 1942, when the U.S. Army was using the cliffs and high-altitude plains of the Mon as a training grounds during World War II, the national forest had grown to over 800,000 acres. Wartime antiques like pitons in Seneca’s rock faces and unexploded mortar shells in Dolly Sods can still be found today.
The disappearance of the logging industry and rewilding of old sites still fascinates Whetsell today. While many trails follow old railroad grades and keen-eyed hikers can still find the occasional rusted railroad relic, the thriving boom towns and camps that choked the rugged hollows with soot and smoke have been all but erased from the landscape. Names on forest maps like Possession Camp and Hell For Certain lead interested hikers to almost-heavenly places, making one wonder what human elements of the past lent themselves to those harrowing names. “It’s hard to imagine today, but tens of thousands of people lived in these valleys, and there’s nothing there today” Whetsell says.
Most of the original Arnold Tract is now contained within the Fernow Experimental Forest. The 5,000-acre plot, named for prominent forester Bernard Fernow, was established in 1934 and has hosted studies on timber harvesting and restoration, endangered species management, acid rain impacts, watershed management, carbon sequestration, and air quality monitoring.
According to Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, a research forester for the USFS Northern Research Station, the original intent of the Fernow was to study reforestation efforts to prevent future landscape destruction. “After the clear cutting at the turn of the century, we wanted to prevent that from ever happening again,” she says.
Land of Many Uses
In 1960, Congress passed the Multiple Use – Sustained Yield Act (MUSYA), which mandates that national forests must be equally managed for the renewable resources of timber, rangeland, water, wildlife, and, recreation. While advocates for individual uses, like logging or recreation, have argued against the requirements act for decades, it has somewhat successfully prevented individual forests from being decimated by logging or dam-building projects.
Given the diversity of landscapes and interest groups throughout the Mon, implementing a forest plan within the bounds of MUSYA is a balancing act to say the least. The Mon still hosts active timber and mining projects, allows grazing in selective areas, is the source of many rivers that provide drinking water for over 200 communities, provides habitat for threatened and endangered species, and is a recreation hub for Central Appalachia.
Forest supervisor Shawn Cochran, who took over the Mon’s reins in February of 2018, is tasked with keeping that balance. “The culture of the Monongahela is unique for Appalachia,” he says. “It’s an exciting place to be with tremendous potential.”
According to Cochran, the ecological diversity throughout the Mon adds to the complexity of managing the forest. “That’s the crux of it, not every place is suitable for restoration and not every place is suitable for timber production.”
Although the MUSYA requires national forests to be equally managed for multiple resources, most folks who don’t have a forestry degree associate these invaluable public lands with outdoor recreation. When it comes to playtime, the Mon delivers in spades. From the soaring cliffs of Seneca Rocks and pristine streams of the Cranberry Wilderness to the gnarly trails of Canaan Mountain and epic cave systems in Pendleton County, the Mon features some of the best rock climbing, paddling, fishing, mountain biking, hiking, birding, and caving east of the Mississippi.
Alex Schlueter is the USFS North Zone recreation officer and works to ensure and improve access to recreation opportunities in the two districts in the northern half of the forest. Schlueter, who hails from Minneapolis, has been with the USFS since 2015 and has worked on the Mon for just under three years. Schlueter, an avid hiker and angler, has to remain cognizant of national recreation trends—like the explosion of rock climbing and the push to create new mountain bike trails—and see how they might apply to the Mon. “The fun part is thinking about the future and planning new projects, and thinking about how to get the materials, staff, and partners in place to get these projects implemented,” he says.
While nearly all the lands contained within the Mon’s boundaries are open to the public for recreation, the 100,000-acre Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area (SKNRA) is the undisputed epicenter. The SKNRA was designated by Congress in 1965 as the first NRA within a national forest. NRAs are unique in that recreation is the primary guiding management principle.
The SKNRA is chock-full of additional superlatives: Spruce Knob is the state’s highest point; Seneca Rocks is the highest true summit in the east attainable by technical rock climbing; and North Fork Mountain is the driest individual mountain in the Appalachian chain. World-class adventures within the SKNRA include rock climbing at Seneca and Nelson Rocks, mountain biking the epic 24-mile North Fork Mountain Trail, paddling the Smoke Hole Canyon, and trout fishing along the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac.
Schlueter’s favorite spot in the Mon is the North Fork Mountain Trail. “The views are amazing. You can sit in the pine trees and it’s very dry; it really reminds me of a southwestern Colorado ponderosa pine forest,” he says. “But at the same time, it could be storming in Otter Creek an hour away. On any given day, depending on what kind of experience you want, you can be in a different ecosystem.”
The Mon also boasts the Canaan Mountain and Seneca Creek backcountry areas, featuring superb trails through large roadless areas and primitive camping opportunities. Other special places include the Highland Scenic Highway, the Gaudineer Scenic Area, and the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area.
“The Monongahela is the culture and embodiment of the state motto of Wild and Wonderful,” Schlueter says. “The mountain culture speaks to how West Virginians and those around the Mon value their natural resources.”
Wilderness and Wonderful
Environmental agitator and late author Edward Abbey once proselytized that “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” Although humans have made their impact in nearly every nook and cranny of the globe, federal wilderness areas—referred to as capital “W” wilderness—exist within the national forest system and are essentially large tracts of wild land at the mercy of Mother Nature’s sweeping hand.
Fortunately for solitude seekers, the Mon currently features seven wilderness areas encompassing 115,000 acres. The Dolly Sods and Otter Creek wilderness areas were established in 1975 under the Eastern Wilderness Act, followed by the Cranberry and Laurel Fork North and South wildernesses in 1983. These beloved tracts are raw and unrelenting, offering true nature immersion for self-sufficient adventures.
Beth Wheatley, director of external affairs and strategic initiatives at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), leads public policy work at the state and federal level. Wheatley’s intro to the Mon came via a backpacking trip to Dolly Sods during her teenage years. “When I arrived on top of the Sods, it felt to me as if I was in Canada,” Wheatley says. “I had never experienced that type of landscape in West Virginia before. It’s just breathtaking.”
But as their popularity grew, advocates realized these clumps of wildlands were not enough. In 2000, conservationist Dave Saville rounded up fellow advocates to form the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition (WWWC) with the goal of creating additional wilderness areas in the Mon. The group spent two years taking inventory of potential sites throughout the forest and started a congressional campaign. “We made a huge evaluation matrix and looked at every metric imaginable,” Saville says. “We boiled the whole thing down, promoting the idea of wilderness the whole time by meeting with our congressional representatives and building support through various coalitions.”
The result was the Vision for a Wild Mon campaign, which proposed 15 tracts of land as potential wilderness candidates. The Wild Mon campaign timed up perfectly with the 2006 revision of the USFS management plan for the national forest—something that only happens every 15 years. “That’s really the best opportunity to change how things happen on the ground,” Saville says. “Once they have a plan, they just go about implementing it.”
Clyde Thompson, former forest supervisor of the Mon, remains proud of that 2006 forest plan. Thompson, who served the USFS for 40 years and guided the Mon’s management for 18 years, recalls the broad support for the plan. “We dealt with extreme viewpoints on several sides, but we were able to work through that as rational moderates,” Thompson says. “When you’re talking about something as emotion-laden as how we manage our public lands, you need to build a pragmatic approach.”
According to Thompson, around 15,000 public comments were issued—with many in support of adding more wilderness—during the management plan revision process. Saville says the support was due in part to the successful messaging and fundraising of the Wild Mon campaign. “We had decades of political activism within the national forest,” Saville says. “We knew the landscape really well and it was a very strategic campaign.”
The result was the creation of three new wilderness areas in 2009—Big Draft, Roaring Plains West, and Spice Run—and expansions of the Cranberry, Dolly Sods, and Otter Creek wilderness areas, adding nearly 40,000 acres to the Mon’s portfolio of untrammeled wildlands.
“It’s just spectacular country,” Thompson says. “You’ve got the variance in topography from under 1,000 feet to above 4,000 feet, the variance of rainfall from 16 inches to 60 inches, the biodiversity, and the geomorphology. There’s not a single person that thinks this is an ugly place.”
“The moss-covered rocks and spruce forests are just magical,” Saville says of the scenery in many of these wilderness areas, noting that it’s up to us to protect these places. “Most people don’t know they can make a difference, but the public can have a say and be involved in decision making.”
Restoring Land and Hope
Beyond the successful wilderness campaign, Saville is also an expert in red spruce restoration. Through the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI), Saville and other partners, including TNC, the USFS, and the WV Highlands Conservancy, have planted over 1 million red spruce seedlings across the Mon and throughout the region over the last 20 years. Saville views the comeback of red spruce forests as the showpiece of restoration work on the Mon.
Cochran agrees. “The Monongahela has evolved over its first 100 years from a land that nobody wanted to a land that everybody loves,” he says. “There’s a forest here now, and that shows how quality restoration work can bring a place back.”
For Thompson, the future lies not only in forest management practices but also with the communities that reside in and around the Mon. “Out west, the forests are outside the communities. Here, the communities are in the forest,” Thompson says. “What you’re doing on the forest has a direct and tie to water supply and recreational access. We need more people using these outdoor spaces, forming memories, and having a passion for future generations to have that same enjoyment.”
But given the change in recreation habits from the pandemic, volatile political winds, and Appalachia’s changing climate, the Mon’s centennial comes at a particularly momentous period. “This is a really historic time in West Virginia,” Wheatley says. “We’ve got the hundred-year anniversary of the national forest, but it’s also a time when West Virginians are asking themselves about the future of the state, and public lands like the Mon have an important role to play in that.”
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and has been finding solace, inspiration, and adventure in the Mon for two decades. He’s honored to share in telling its story and thanks all who helped along the way.