It’s 1972 and Allen Jones nervously looks at his mother on the courthouse steps in West Union as he places successive bids against a timber company. The item up for grabs, however, is not in sight. Jones and the loggers are facing off to purchase a remote 190-acre parcel of untrammeled land in Doddridge County. Both parties want the property for its valuable old-growth timber: the loggers to strip it bare; Jones to preserve it in perpetuity.
Fast forward 47 years, and that virgin forest is still standing as the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve. Jones was the top bidder, cementing the courthouse tableau as a rare environmental triumph. Looking to make the win permanent, Jones eventually transferred the property to be preserved under the auspices of the West Virginia Land Trust (WVLT), a state-wide organization dedicated to protecting special places and natural resources across the Mountain State.
While the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve is one of many properties owned and managed by the WVLT, its history, the fight to save it, and the ongoing mission to preserve it capture the essence of the WVLT’s astounding 25-year history. From its origins as a pipedream to an effective organization with nearly 40 properties and over 10,000 acres of protected land, the WVLT’s legacy is nothing short of impressive.
Appalachia’s Original Trustees
22 years after Jones’s courthouse nailbiter, Elizabeth Zimmermann asked Steve Hollenhorst to help her preserve the rural farmland on which she had spent most of her adult life. “She had great memories of the place and wanted it protected,” Hollenhorst says. “I started looking into the web of the land trust movement and decided that West Virginia needed a land trust.”
Hollenhorst, then a forestry professor at West Virginia University (WVU), met with conservationist Dave Saville and laid out the framework for what they originally called the Appalachian Land Trust. “We had big dreams to do something region-wide,” Hollenhorst recalls. “The real challenge was conservation on private land. It inspired me to look [beyond] public lands for conservation opportunities.”
Hollenhorst and Saville decided Zimmermann’s 84-acre property, located just south of Morgantown, would be the seed to sprout the movement. On November 1, 1994, the Appalachian Land Trust formed its first board of directors and was soon renamed the WVLT. In 1995, the Elizabeth’s Woods Nature Preserve was deeded to the WVLT and has been managed under the preserve’s guidelines ever since.
The board, which Hollenhorst describes as a “ragtag group of volunteers with a range of experience from across a broad political spectrum,” secured a grant from the National Park Service and rolled up its sleeves. The board quickly blew through the startup funding before it had a reliable donor base. “We had a lot of ups and downs,” Hollenhorst says. “Every day we were like, ‘Is this gonna work?’”
Hollenhorst spent his sabbatical learning the legal mechanisms that allow a land trust to acquire easements. “None of us knew anything about private land conservation so we had to create the whole thing from scratch.” They soon found out that a land transaction is a complex web of funding, resource rights, and contractual legalese.
A Watershed Moment
Things moved slowly over the next 17 years. The WVLT hired its first executive director in Judy Rodd, who established the organization’s first office in downtown Morgantown. Lacking paid staffers beyond Rodd, the WVLT was kept alive by the hard work of its volunteer board members. From 1995 to 2012, the WVLT successfully protected a total of about 2,000 acres, mostly through conservation easements and a few projects with partner organizations.
Then the watershed moment came: a flood of funding from settlements related to Clean Water Act violations was steered to the WVLT, allowing it to hire Brent Bailey as executive director. Bailey, who had served on the WVLT board for a few years in the late 90s, adapted to his new role and hired seven additional full-time staff members over the next three years. “We built a really capable and committed team of people who really love this work, and the results started piling up,” Bailey says.
By 2014, the WVLT had over 6,500 acres in its portfolio through a nearly even split of public projects and private easements. That number has steadily climbed to the press-time total of 10,109 acres with an anticipated 5,700 additional acres to be announced by the end of the year.
Hollenhorst highlights Bailey’s ability to bridge the gaps in our divided era. “No matter where you are on the political spectrum, you can find a place in your heart for a land trust,” he says. “It’s this great meeting ground forpeople of different political persuasions and Brent has been brilliant at putting that type of coalition together.”
Easements Aren’t Easy
Nathan Fetty, a lawyer at WVU’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic (LUSD), assists the WVLT with the legal aspects of a land transaction. “It’s imperative to have good legal representation because transactions are designed to protect a piece of property in perpetuity,” he says.
Perpetuity—simply meaning forever—can be a difficult concept to grasp. Can land and its resources really be protected forever? The short answer: yes.
By placing a conservation easement on a property, an individual or organization may retain private property rights so long as they follow the specific rules spelled out in the easement. That easement remains legally binding when the property is sold, transferred, or passed on to heirs. Even if the WVLT were to dissolve in a century, any easements on properties it has handled cannot be terminated.
The 283-acre Needleseye Park in Oak Hill is a prime example of a recent easement transaction. The WVLT partnered with the City of Oak Hill to purchase the property, placed an easement to restrict development and permanently protect it for recreation, then transferred ownership to the city. “That property is set aside for public use through the easement, even if [it gets transferred] out of the city’s ownership,” Bailey says. “But I think its transfer is very unlikely. Oak Hill sees this property as a foundation for the city’s future.”
Ultimately, Bailey says these successes rely on public support, and the WVLT is working to encourage citizens to realize they have the abilities and economic power to make conservation happen. “Public lands need to be supported by the public,” Bailey says. “The more you get people enthused, the more likely you are to ensure those places are protected, and we need that support to sustain the protections we bring to the table.”
Bailey says the WVLT receives one to two calls each week from folks who want to protect or donate their land. While the volume of calls is encouraging, the WVLT doesn’t have the resources to address every request. According to Bailey, the WVLT has a set of criteria it uses to filter potential projects.
Historically, land conservation in West Virginia has been an uphill battle. Fetty recognizes that protecting land in an extraction state can be challenging, requiring creativity and the ability to reach across the aisle. “Unfortunately, there’s not as robust a conservation community here as in other states,” Fetty says. “But because of [the WVLT’s] independence and ability to be nimble, it’s able to leverage resources and collaborate with other entities.”
While the WVLT takes pride in helping landowners preserve their beloved properties, it also seeks to acquire unique ecosystems of high conservation value like the recently purchased 900-acre Yellow Creek Preserve in Tucker County.
Logged in the early 1900s and strip-mined in the 80s, the wetland ecosystem of the Yellow Creek Preserve has marvelously recovered to feature a stunning variety of native flora and fauna. “What makes the property special is the biological diversity,” says WVLT lands program manager Ashton Berdine. “Despite the past impacts, it still has an amazingly rich system of plant communities. The wetlands still hold all the species you would expect and have proven to be very resilient.”
Berdine, a trained biologist, highlights the strategic value of protecting plots that contribute to ecological cohesiveness. The Yellow Creek Preserve represents a tiny portion of a much larger wetland complex that spans the Potomac Highlands. “These peripheral wetlands are equally important for the species they hold and the buffer they provide to the core of the Canaan Valley matrix of wetlands,” Berdine says. “The icing on the cake is the trail system that’s loved and well-used by the community, so we’ve layered quite a few conservation benefits into one amazing project.”
But the protected landscapes we see are just the tip of the iceberg. The WVLT also owns mineral rights like coal and gas for most properties in its portfolio, resulting in what Hollenhorst describes as subsurface conservation value. “This preserves climate protections and resilience in essence by locking up and sequestering [those resources],” Hollenhorst says. “It’s not anything you can see, but it’s just as valuable of a preservation as anything we’ve done on the surface.”
Passing the Torch
The first 25 years of the WVLT have been a resounding success, and the organization is strategically planning out the next 25. To do so, Fetty asks a simple question with a complex answer: What lies ahead for West Virginia?
“We’ve got to encourage the type of work the WVLT does to become the kind of state people want to be in,” Fetty says. “I see the WVLT continuing to build a robust land conservation movement and being an integral part of West Virginia’s next chapter.”
Bailey recognizes that future involves guiding the state’s transition to the post-coal economy, which means developing recreation opportunities to entice young people to move to and stay in West Virginia. “There are counties that don’t have many outdoor recreation opportunities, they don’t have a park or preserve,” he says. “Over the next 25 years, I think that we will be looking to see that land conservation is spread all around the state.”
The WVLT will also do its part to address climate change via improving water quality, riparian plantings along streams to mitigate rising water temperatures, encouraging landowners to plant pollinator gardens, and targeted conservation of migratory bird habitat. “It isn’t just about the recreation economy; communities that have these kinds of amenities become competitive to diversify their local economies,” Bailey says. “We’re poised to insert land protection into that context so people see there’s a way to secure something really positive for the future.”
A Lasting Legacy
In 2017, the WVLT acquired two properties to further cement its legacy and bring its story full circle.
The first was the acquisition of two properties that abut Elizabeth’s Woods: the 174-acre Little Falls Preserve and the 60-acre Morris Property. Together, these three tracts create the 318-acre Tom’s Run Preserve and significantly expand the region’s science education and recreation opportunities. “It’s got great birding, a wonderful stream, and connects to the [Mon River Rail Trail],” Bailey says. “It ties into the greater recreation network and is going to be a real anchor for Morgantown in the future.”
The second was nearly 50 years in the making: the addition of the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve to the WVLT’s portfolio of lands open for public use. Although Jones had initiated the conservation of the property years ago, he sat patiently as the owner until the donation process was completed at the end of 2017. “I never really considered it my land, I considered it my mother’s land,” Jones said. “It’s a compelling story that a woman, 50 years ago, had saved the land from the timber companies. It seemed logical that the WVLT should continue to make sure it was preserved.”
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and sends out a sincere thank-you to all who have donated time, money, or land to help preserve what remains of West Virginia’s special places. Without your combined efforts, these inspiring stories would not exist.