Cheat Canyon center of project

ROWLESBURG, W.Va. Tucked away in the rocks of northcentral West Virginia is the secret to a multi-million-dollar conservation effort, a threetooth snail that actually has just one tooth.

Cheat Canyon, the only place on Earth where the threatened Cheat threetooth snail can be found, will be protected for future generations by a conservation partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

The groups announced the partnership on Thursday. When the $7 million project is completed, it will conserve most of the canyon not already included in Cooper’s Rock State Forest and Snake Hill Wildlife Management Area.

The canyon is a deep gorge where the Cheat River flows from Rowlesburg in Preston County to Cheat Lake in Monongalia County. The river is popular for whitewater rafting and the canyon is home to diverse wildlife such as the endangered Indiana bat.

Within the Cheat, the threatened threetooth snail lives in deep, cool rocky habitats often identifiable by its coverage from rhododendrons. According to Craig Stihler, Department of Natural Resource wildlife specialist, the snail’s name can be misleading.

It has one tooth on its shell, not three, which keeps snail-eating beetles from pulling the creature out of its protective flat shell, he said.

The snail, about the size of a quarter, never ventures more than a meter from its habitat, Stihler said.

Acquiring a 7-mile stretch of one of West Virginia’s most iconic landscapes was no small feat as there have been various conservation efforts under way since 1976. This effort has been in the works for the past five years.

In partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund acquired 3,800 acres along the Cheat River. The Conservation Fund negotiated the purchase from the Forestland Group, a timber investment firm that owns the property.

The Nature Conservancy is providing $3 million in private funding and is acquiring 2,300 acres of the property and will retain 1,300 acres as the new Charlotte Ryde Nature Preserve, funded from a bequest from the estate of Charlotte Ryde. The DNR will acquire the remaining acreage, about 2,500 acres, to complement existing public recreation lands on the lower Cheat River.

Additional funding comes from the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund for land conservation, a $1.5 million grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund and $400,000 from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

“Private, state and federal funds used for conservation not only leverage each other, they also reflect the national significance of the state’s land, water and wildlife resources, the commitment of West Virginia’s citizens through our public investment in our ‘Wild and Wonderful’ outdoors and the creativity to bring together various partners to go the distance and reach this milestone,” said Reggie Hall, West Virginia state director for the Conservation Fund.

Hall credited Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for recognizing the value of the landscape to West Virginians.

“We are very lucky that a lot of things came together,” said Rodney Bartgis, state director of the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.

Bartgis believes without the Cheat threetooth snail’s need for protection, gathering the funding for the project may have been impossible.

Curtis Taylor, chief of the DNR Wildlife Resources Section, said every management decision the group makes moving forward will center on the question whether it is good or bad for the snail.

Along with protecting the snail’s habitat, the groups also are considering re-opening a section of the Allegheny Trail that had been turned into a logging road.

“It’s not a matter of opening a gate,” Bartgis said.

The opening is impacted by trail uses, safety regulations and maintaining the snail’s habitat.

In terms of connecting the trail to the Cheat River, the groups are considering developing additional put-ins or take-outs for fishermen and whitewater rafters to increase access to the water.

Steve Brown, stream restoration program administrator for the DNR, said there are limited places for such access. One possible spot, located between the rapids of Big Nasty and Even Nastier, already shows the remains of a path to the river.

Plus, the access point doesn’t feature a prime snail habitat.

The river, having dealt with mine drainage over the years, is steadily recovering because of the decades of work and millions of dollars in investments by local residents, state agencies and groups such as Friends of the Cheat.

Amanda Pitzer, executive director of the Friends of the Cheat, believes success is when visitors can walk down to the river and catch a fish. As a population of smallmouth bass is growing as a result of investments to improve water quality, Pitzer’s vision of success is becoming a reality.

“Over 20 years we’ve worked with many partners. We’re seeing the Cheat River come back,” Pitzer said about efforts to mitigate the acid mining drainage. “The water quality is only going to get better.”

Bartgis said much remains to be done, but the Cheat Canyon conservation partnership is moving forward with projects to conserve the area for wildlife and for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy even if it moves at a snail’s pace.