We ascend a grassy hill and peddle along an exposed ridgeline overlooking the expansive Shavers Fork valley. The air is crisp, the sun is blazing, and the trail is bone-dry—a rare experience for two Davis-based mountain bikers. Distant mountains are covered in a dense mosaic of red spruce and northern hardwood trees. Right below us, the forest is stripped bare, exposing compacted, sun-crusted soil and a sparse array of seedlings. I can’t help but wonder, are we still in West Virginia?
“It feels like a mix of western alpine and otherworldly,” says Owen Mulkeen, mountain biker and Associate Director of Friends of the Cheat. “Not often are you able to get 280-degree panoramic views of the Mon National Forest for considerable stretches of trail.”
We’re riding the Hawks Ridge Loop, a purpose-built mountain bike trail that traverses a small portion of the Mower Tract in the Monongahela National Forest (MNF). The trail crosses the bench of an old strip-mining site, providing sweeping views of Cheat and Shavers mountains, then dips into tight, twisting turns through unmined forestlands before opening up into grassy meadows. The trail often flows through sparse landscapes and mangled forests scattered with uprooted trees and fallen branches. It’s not exactly beautiful, but it does have an odd charm.
A Glimpse into the Past
The Mower Tract spans nearly 40,000 acres on Cheat Mountain, straddling Randolph and Pocahontas counties. The tract contains one of the largest intact red spruce stands south of Maine. Although red spruce forests once defined the West Virginia highlands, they were clear-cut in the late 1800s and early 1900s, leaving only a fraction remaining today.
In the 1970s and 1980s, roughly 2,500 acres of the Mower Tract were contour mined. “When the Mower Tract was first mined, the reclamation process basically involved piling the soil back on top of the exposed mine land, compacting it as much as possible to keep it from eroding away, and then throwing some seeds on it with no real rhyme or reason to what those seeds were or whether they would actually grow,” says Ben Rhodes, Ecological Restoration Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Those seeds, which were primarily non-native grasses and conifers, could barely grow in the heavily compacted soil. “Functionally speaking, it’s a biological wasteland,” says Rhodes.
Yet on a broader scale, Cheat Mountain is one of the most biodiverse regions in North America. “It’s the heart of the high-elevation Red Spruce-Northern Hardwoods forest in West Virginia,” says Thomas Minney, State Director for TNC in West Virginia. “Many rare, threatened, and endangered species occur in that forest because it’s a crossroads of northern and southern Appalachian species.”
To protect the Mower Tract, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Trust for Public Land purchased surface rights for the property from the Mower Land and Lumber Company in 1987. At the same time, TNC in West Virginia purchased mineral rights to the coal under the Mower Tract and transferred ownership to the USFS.
Since acquiring the Mower Tract, the USFS has worked with numerous partners to restore red spruce forests, clean up watersheds, and bring recreation opportunities to the area. The restoration process is undoubtedly slow, but the hope is that 60 to 80 years from now, red spruce will once again dominate the overstory.
Unfortunately, creating habitats where red spruce and associated hardwood species, such as bigtooth aspen and black cherry, could grow turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. In 2007, the USFS planted 10,000 trees on 75 acres of the Mower Tract, but the vast majority of them died due to soil compaction and competition with non-native grasses.
A few years later, they brought in a bulldozer to loosen up the soil and remove non-native species, then planted another 22,000 seedlings—most of which were red spruce. “You’re taking a big piece of equipment out there and ripping up the ground and saying this is restoration—it’s very worrisome,” says Jack Tribble, Greenbrier District Ranger for the USFS. “But by 2011, we noticed it was really working.” Tree survival rates were much higher because the plants could root into the soil and retain water.
As soon as they saw the benefits of this seemingly destructive approach, the USFS expanded its restoration efforts. “We’re now trying to do a hundred acres a year,” says Tribble. “It’s ugly restoration, but it’s working. We’re seeing new wildflowers grow and we have lots of early successional habitat, which is great for turkey and grouse.” This year alone, 92,000 trees were planted on the Mower Tract.
In addition to trees, the USFS and its partner groups are restoring watersheds and native brook trout habitat in the region. They have created more than 700 vernal pools so far, which control sediment and provide habitat for amphibians. “While everyone knew that restoration work on the Mower Tract would be very difficult and very pricey, every acre we restored there has a huge impact because it’s such a critical area,” says Rhodes.
Another key component of the restoration efforts involves creating recreation opportunities for hikers, bikers, boaters, anglers, and hunters. “We really want a place where people can do all those things well,” says Tribble, noting that many times these groups are comprised of the same people. Currently, they are expanding the trail system, enhancing road access, and improving dispersed campsites. By the end of this summer, there will be four loops at the Mower Track, totaling about eight miles. “We need to get people out and connect them to the mountains,” says Tribble. “When times get tough, people can come to the forest.”
Forests of the Past and Future
The Mower Tract provides an opportunity for visitors to watch mine restoration in action and monitor change over time. “You really get a sense of the scale, just out there on the site, looking at these huge restoration areas. You can also see the progress year to year because they move through discrete sections,” says Rhodes. Pausing for a moment on Hawks Ridge Loop, we saw unrestored acres of mined land, newly restored sites covered in bulldozed red pine and recently planted bigtooth aspen, and dense pockets of red spruce and hardwoods towering in the distance.
While the project is a prime example of red spruce restoration, it only reflects a fraction of the ongoing efforts throughout West Virginia and Central Appalachia. “We had to move from just buying or protecting a piece of land to thinking about how to keep the whole red spruce forest a functioning ecosystem,” says Minney.
The drive to restore red spruce is both a reflection of the past and a plan for the future. High-elevation red spruce forests are home to 145 rare plant species and 137 wildlife species of concern, including the WV Northern flying squirrel, Cheat Mountain salamander, and the saw-whet owl, according to the USFS. Along with providing habitat for these species, red spruce cool the air and water, absorb carbon, and prevent sediment runoff. “As the climate changes, nature is going to depend on the Appalachians because everything to the east of these mountains is big cities, which severely fragment the landscape and don’t provide a lot of habitat, whereas the west is primarily agriculture and industry,” says Cam Moore, Central Appalachians Director for TNC. “You have this green superhighway of the Appalachians that runs through the middle connecting everything.”
Restoring old mines with red spruce forests can also boost outdoor recreation opportunities. “Recreation and restoration aren’t mutually exclusive,” says Mulkeen. Although the Mower Tract may look a little rough right now, the destruction will soon be overgrown with flowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings. It provides a glimpse of what’s possible on other surface mine sites in West Virginia as well. “Strip mines are a totally underutilized asset. There’s huge potential to use those landscapes for restoration and recreation,” Moore says.
A visit to the Mower Tract transported us from the lush forests of West Virginia to the alpine environments of the west. It’s a living laboratory that offered us a first-hand look into a recovering yet resilient landscape. After spending a few days biking and car camping at the Mower Tract, we packed up our gear and headed home, stopping at Gaudineer Scenic Area for a quick hike. Just fifteen minutes north of the Mower Tract, Gaudineer is home to one of the few remaining old-growth red spruce forests in the state, made possible by a surveying error in the early 1900s. Every step along our hike highlighted majestic spruce, maple, cherry, and birch trees that stretched far above the canopy. Several fallen spruce trunks exposed a network of roots, completely devoid of soil, yet still grasping large rocks after a century of decay. The magnitude of the forest was humbling: a window into what Appalachia looked like before it was clear cut, a window into what the Mower Tract could look like in several hundred years.
Nikki Forrester is associate editor of Highland Outdoors and had to pinch herself to make sure she wasn’t out west.