Mid-Ohio Valley to get DNR recreation areas

Hunters, fishermen, conservationists, birdwatchers and hikers in the Mid-Ohio Valley will receive a gift from the state this year.

In December, The Conservation Fund announced its purchase of 18,778 acres of forestland in the Mid-Ohio Valley to increase public access for hunting and wildlife-associated recreation. The acreage is in Wirt, Wood, Jackson, Calhoun, Ritchie and Doddridge counties.

This land in District 6 of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, based in Parkersburg, also will benefit threatened and endangered species, The Conservation Fund officials said. The property had been owned by forestry and pulp and paper companies.

The properties were acquired by The Conservation Fund from The Forestland Group at the request of the state DNR and will be transferred to the state as funding becomes available, officials said.

Paul R. Johansen, chief of the Wildlife Resources Section of the DNR, told me Wednesday he hopes the DNR can open the acreage in time for spring turkey hunting and fall deer hunting.

He cautions outdoorsmen to be patient as boundary lines must be marked and signs posted in the 18,778 acres before the areas can be used after the DNR assumes control.

The DNR intends to move quickly on acquiring the 18,778 acres, Johansen said.

The purchase will create five West Virginia Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) and expand four existing WMAs and North Bend State Park. The existing WMAs are Frozen Camp in Jackson County, Hughes River in Ritchie and Wirt counties, Sand Hill in Ritchie, Wood and Pleasants counties and Ritchie Mines in Ritchie County.

The 18,778 acres will be added to the 12,440 acres the DNR recently purchased in Jackson, Pleasants, Wirt and Ritchie counties.

The DNR will be acquiring approximately 31,200 acres in District 6 at an estimated cost of $19 million in three phases, said Johansen. The funding will come from three primary sources: state hunting and fishing license fees, federal Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration funds, and mitigation fees associated with gas pipeline development, he said.

“This is huge” from an outdoor recreation standpoint and unprecedented in the Mid-Ohio Valley, said Johansen, who has worked at the DNR for 37 years.

West Virginia’s portion of the Mid-Ohio Valley has a small amount of public lands for outdoor recreation, DNR officials said.

Johansen sees three main benefits from the land acquisition: recreational enhancement, a tremendous economic boost for small, rural areas, and significant conservation benefits.

“The deer, turkey and squirrel hunters will be happy with this,” Johansen said.

Johansen said the state was selective in acquiring high quality properties that fit the outdoor recreation and wildlife conservation plans of West Virginia.

Jeff McCrady, District 6 wildlife biologist, said this land acquisition is the most exciting development during his 35-year career with the DNR in Parkersburg.

The purchases will reopen land for public use and preserve rural landscapes, McCrady said.

In the 1960s-’80s, about 90,000 acres of Westvaco property in this area were open to the public for outdoor recreation, McCrady said.

Then, in the early 1990s, leases were required to hunt on this land, resulting in fewer hunters, he said. Now, 30,000 acres of this property will be reopened for public hunting and other recreational and wildlife uses.

The 31,200 acres are within a one-hour drive of Parkersburg, McCrady noted.

McCrady has begun checking on boundaries in the 12,440 acres the DNR recently purchased. Signs and parking lots will be added to these recreational areas.

“We’re proud to partner with the WVDNR in this ongoing effort to conserve important wildlife habitat and permanently protect these lands as new and expanded WMAs and a state park addition, which will deliver both economic and environmental benefits for local communities in an area of the state lacking in public lands,” said Joe Hankins, vice president for The Conservation Fund.

The nonprofit Conservation Fund expects to convey the land to the DNR in phases, starting in the winter of 2019, with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration program and other sources.

Contact Paul LaPann at plapann@newsandsentinel.com