Nature lovers, rejoice! Two pristine and globally unique ecosystems in Canaan Valley Resort State Park (CVRSP) were designated as the first tracts in the new West Virginia Natural Areas Program. Encompassing a combined 2,200 acres, the Bald Knob and Canaan Valley Wetland natural areas were selected for their concentrations of globally rare plants and animals, high conservation priorities, and distinct natural features.
As the highest large valley east of the Mississippi, Canaan is already widely known for its stunning vistas, wild weather, and year-round outdoor recreation. With the addition of these WV Natural Areas, CVRSP is now officially recognized for its stunning biodiversity.
The WV Natural Areas Program, administered by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was established in February 2021 and aims to protect areas already under DNR management that “possess significant natural importance in the conservation of the state’s, and in many cases the world’s, rarest plant and animal species.”
Canaan’s unique position as a transition zone for several larger ecosystems makes it a biodiversity hotspot. The valley and its surrounding mountains represent both the northernmost range for several southern species and the southernmost range for a handful of northern species typically found in Canada.
According to Scott Warner, DNR assistant chief for wildlife diversity, the two sites in Canaan Valley were chosen as the inaugural inductees due to the occurrence of species that DNR identified as having immediate need for protection. “Canaan Valley has the highest density of rare and endangered species in the state,” Warner said. “We’ve got species that you won’t find anywhere else in West Virginia.”
Canaan Valley Wetland Natural Area
Shallow, slow-moving streams meander through sprawling conifer swamps, slowed even further by the relentless work of beavers creating ponds several acres in size that reflect the stunning beauty of the rugged mountain that rims the valley.
The Canaan Valley Wetland Natural Area encompasses over 2,000 acres and contains large portions of the various meandering tributaries that make up the headwaters of the Blackwater River. The wetland here is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Central Appalachia, featuring 43 rare plants, six rare birds, and the Appalachian cottontail. “It’s a birder’s paradise,” said DNR ecologist Kieran O’Malley.
The Canaan wetland features 12 rare invertebrates, including the West Virginia glyph, a snail species that is considered to be a globally rare first-category (G1) by the NatureServe Conservation Status Rank. This ranking means the species is critically imperiled and at high risk of extinction.
The area also includes 13 rare vegetation association communities, including a balsam fir–oatgrass swamp, which is a globally rare second-category (G2) vegetation association community. According to O’Malley, the balsam fir–oatgrass swamp in Canaan is the only occurrence in North America.
Bald Knob Natural Area
Dense stands of hardy red spruce trees dot sections of open meadow atop one of Tucker County’s highest and windiest peaks, creating thick duff soils that provide cover for rare salamanders.
While Bald Knob is mostly known as a mecca for cross-country skiing and for its snow-capped vistas during winter, it’s also now known as a 200-acre WV Natural Area that will permanently protect its forests and meadows. The natural area boundaries extend from the natural gas pipeline—and its trail that connects Canaan Ski Resort to the White Grass Ski Touring Center—to the classic open vista on Bald Knob and the pristine spruce-hardwood forests on “true Bald Knob,” the summit of the knob just to the east of the prominent view point.
The Bald Knob Natural Area is home to eight rare insects, two plant species, and one reptile—the northern ring-necked snake. It’s also home to two species of salamanders, including the well-known Cheat Mountain salamander, a G2 amphibian that is endemic to a few high-elevation ridgelines in West Virginia.
Although red spruce forests are recovering and now cover the tops of many ridgelines throughout the Allegheny Mountains, Bald Knob is home to a globally rare red spruce–southern mountain cranberry forest, also a G2 vegetation association community. O’Malley said there are around twenty known global occurrences of this unique forest type.
A Greater Level of Protection
By designating plots currently under DNR ownership, the program places a greater level of protection on unique or sensitive areas within state parks, state forests, and state wildlife management areas. The designations will come with new signage and educational kiosks, along with potential for new trail development to highlight unique areas, trail diversion to protect sensitive areas, or construction of boardwalks to protect wetlands.
According to DNR ecologist Kieran O’Malley, the idea for the program has been around since the 1970s. “The Natural Areas Program is a vehicle for identifying and protecting the best of the best, the most exemplary and diverse habitats in the state,” O’Malley said. “Our goal is to protect these sensitive organisms, ideally with a robust population, but also to allow the land to be used and enjoyed in a way that does not impact them.”
Warner was quick to reassure that the WV Natural Areas Program will not impact or cause changes to hunting on state lands. He also noted that because the program only allows for designations on land already owned by DNR, there will be no regulations imposed upon private, industrial, or federal lands. “This program allows us to work closely together with our parks unit to identify crucial areas within the boundaries of state parks that may need some higher level of protection.”
Although designation as a WV Natural Area won’t come with additional funding to support conservation practices or development of recreation infrastructure, Warner said the program will make these areas more competitive for grant funds administered through both the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Great American Outdoors Act that was passed in 2020.
Now that the first two WV Natural Areas have been christened, DNR is looking to add new sites in the coming years. According to Warner, DNR is currently considering sites in five other state parks and expects to make these announcements early in 2022.
“Our state parks have been protected because somebody had the forward thinking that these areas are unique to the state of West Virginia,” Warner said. “We are committed to that obligation of providing recreational and educational opportunities, and now we’re doing it with a higher level of conservation.”
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and lives in Canaan Valley. He regularly visits both natural areas year-round and can vouch for their awesomeness.