Highland Profiles is a series that aims to highlight West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re an environmentalist who has spent any time in West Virginia in the last 25 years, you’ve likely heard of Friends of the Cheat—unless you’re a hellgrammite living under a rock, in which case you’ve likely benefited from FOC’s successful restoration of the Cheat River.
The current face of FOC features the cheerful smile of executive director Amanda Pitzer. Named one of our state’s Wonder Women in 2017 by WV Living Magazine, Pitzer has had a profound impact throughout her tenure at FOC. She took the reins at just 29 years of age following FOC executive director Keith Pitzer’s death in December of 2009.
This May, the Cheat River Festival—FOC’s flagship fundraising extravaganza—turns 25, and I sat down with Pitzer to take a deep dive into the Cheat. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up in West Virginia?
I grew up outside of Erie, Pennsylvania. I got turned onto a stream monitoring program at Allegheny College when I was in High School. I got to do my first benthic survey and fell in love with creeks and rivers. My coming to WV story starts in Ohio, when I was traveling with my best friend Jen before I took a job in Virginia. We went to a festival and met [Jake Pitzer], and I spent the next year driving from southwest Virginia to Bruceton. I got to see the state through all four seasons, and I just fell in love with the place.
“Why here? I don’t know, I just fell in love with the damn place. You can take a canoe and put on the Cheat and feel like you’re a million miles away.”
How did you get introduced to FOC?
I got to know [Keith Pitzer], who was the executive director at the time of Friends of the Cheat. I learned about acid mine drainage, I got to go my first Cheat Fest in 2005, and I volunteered every year after that. Keith alerted me to a job with Friends of Deckers Creek to run their summer camp program and served as a reference for me to get the job. I worked there for three years, where we worked to build their award-winning, nationally recognized environmental education program. That was a really great time, I met so many people from different watershed groups to government agencies, what a great way to get to know West Virginia than by getting to work with the people who really care and are committed to doing great things?
How did you become executive director?
I came back from a trip in late 2009, and that winter, Keith passed away from cancer. Friends of the Cheat was struggling, and the board moved forward on a serious nationwide search. They had 67 applicants and believe it or not, they fricken’ hired me. I had a lot of knowledge and passion, but I didn’t have proven management experience. They really put a lot of faith in my ability. I was only 29 when I got hired. I jumped in, we had only three staff including me at the time and a VISTA, the first year was just trying to bring the organization back on track. The part of the story that isn’t sexy but real is that I am not married. It doesn’t bother me to acknowledge that I’m divorced, the influence of Keith on my life hasn’t changed because of that. But I’m here and I’m committed to the river. My commitment to Friends of the Cheat wouldn’t change. That’s how I got the Pitzer name—they think I’m Keith’s daughter, which is flattering, but I’m not a native. I got here as fast as I could, and I love it here. The name helps me.
What were those early days like?
When I started out, I had a lot of looking through files literally trying to piece together the things Keith was working on before he died. Now I was in a whole new role, I had to really put myself out there and intentionally establish my authority. When I started, I didn’t have a lot of confidence, but I was bold and passionate. I was probably going to three to four meetings in the evening every week on top of working five days a week. I was running at a pace that wasn’t sustainable. I think it was my fourth year that I really took a breath, that’s when I started to doubt myself. What am I doing? Are these the right decisions? That also happened to be when my marriage was ultimately ending. When you have a small staff and someone is struggling, everyone feels it. In hindsight, it’s like, yeah, we did it! That goes to the testament of the relationships that the people before me really built. That’s what this work is all about—relationship building.
You were named a WV Living Wonder Woman in 2017, what are your thoughts on being a leader?
I have to keep the curtain pulled. I don’t want you to see that I am vulnerable. That really, if you pushed me a little bit, I might lose my shit. I think women need to hear that, because people don’t know that I’m insecure, that I don’t have confidence all the time, and that’s OK. It’s not a weakness. It helps me empathize with people. It makes me down to earth, it makes me real. I have great people that support me, I couldn’t be the executive director of Friends of the Cheat without my staff and our volunteers.
“I have to keep the curtain pulled. I don’t want you to see that I am vulnerable. I think women need to hear that, because people don’t know that I don’t have confidence all the time, and that’s OK. It’s not a weakness. It helps me empathize with people.”
What was the Cheat River like when you took over?
In 2010, the Cheat mainstem itself was on an upswing. When I started, Muddy Creek was still contributing [pollution] to the Cheat Canyon, but we’d been getting reports of more eagles and osprey getting sighted, and people were reliably catching fish in the canyon. By 2012, the pH of the Cheat mainstem was meeting water quality standards for pH, and the state was taking steps to delist the Cheat from the list of impaired water. In terms of the Clean Water Act, that’s a victory.
It’s remarkable that not only is the Cheat maintaining neutral pH, but Muddy Creek is actually adding alkalinity to the Cheat. 25 years ago, I don’t think anyone would have thought that Muddy Creek would come back. Fish need clean water 100 percent of the time, not 99 percent of the time. Without bugs and fish, that’s not restoration. The public doesn’t care if the pH is 7.2, they care if you can flip over a rock and find a hellgrammite or throw a line in and catch a fish. That’s restoration.
Why the Cheat? What’s the big draw for you?
I see the Cheat as the underdog. It’s got all the things going for it, except for pyrite in the soils. It’s got beautiful scenic mountains, fresh water trout streams, beautiful farm land, as well as quaint small towns. I believe that Preston County is barely scratching the surface of our potential. I think that this is something people say about West Virginia often, and it sounds cliché, but we can make a big difference here; we really can. Why here? I don’t know, I just fell in love with the damn place. You can take a canoe and put on the Cheat and float by Seven Islands and feel like you’re a million miles away.
“Fish need clean water 100 percent of the time, not 99 percent of the time.”
What does Cheat Fest mean for the area?
I think that Cheat Fest is a place and time that brings people together of varied interests and backgrounds. But for the community, it’s this bright spot of shared celebration and appreciation of this place; it’s highlighting what we all have in common. That’s a story that people can tell for generations about a group people who worked to change something that they thought was wrong and won. It’s this ripple effect. We throw this pebble that is Cheat Fest, and the ripples that come out are immeasurable. Friendships, marriages, babies, the whole human element. And then there’s the economic development standpoint. We’ve got campgrounds full, we’ve got gas stations packed, we’ve got paddling trips happening. It’s the biggest thing that happens in Albright every year. We’d love to see Albright look more like Cheat Fest every weekend.
Favorite Cheat Fest moment?
One of my favorite Cheat Fest moments was the year that Johnny Staats played, I got up and danced on stage during the set. Afterward, I came back around and see my staff talking, and they just had big smiles on their faces; they were just so happy. They said, “How lucky are we that we get to work for an organization that throws an event like this, and our stupid boss is on the stage with Johnny Staats dancing like an idiot?” It’s those moments that are the most rewarding to me, that I can share those feelings with really great people.
What do you see for the future of FOC?
More of an offense, more programming around the river and recreation activities. We’ll be breaking ground on the rail-trail which is going to be a turning point for this area. I also see us taking on the removal of the lowhead dam at the powerplant in Albright. It might take another 25 years, but that’s full restoration. We’ve got the water quality back; let’s restore the habitat and make the Cheat River one of the longest paddleable rivers on the east coast. We hope to do more structured environmental education. That’s how you impart change is by changing the minds of tomorrow. As long as we have continued support from donors, the next 25 years will be better than the first 25.
Come see what all the buzz is about this weekend at the 25th-annual Cheat River Festival. If you run into Amanda Pitzer, give her a bug hug from me and thank her for her commitment to the mighty Cheat. See you there!