“Something that is scarce, like wildlands in the East, has more value than something that is plentiful. You can find parking lots anywhere.” - Steve Callen
“They call this place the birthplace of rivers,” Steve Callen says. He’s referring to the Potomac Highlands, where he and his family are landowners. “This is big mountain property, reaching to the summit of Pharis Knob, one of the state’s highest peaks,” he says of the land he recently worked to protect with The Nature Conservancy.
This region in the Allegheny Mountains is indeed something special. It encompasses the headwaters of the Potomac River and five others—the Cheat, James, Greenbrier, Elk and Gauley. Here, spruce-northern hardwood forests have a stronghold. Trout fishing is at its finest. The federally protected Cheat Mountain salamander has a home. Solitude can be found.
“It’s one of few areas in the state without any electric for miles,” Steve says. “As a result, it’s highly undeveloped.”
Creating a Land Bridge
In fact, Steve’s two Randolph County farms create a connection between two swaths of some of the wildest land in the Monongahela National Forest. To the east lies the 20,000-acre Seneca Creek Backcountry, which extends across Spruce Mountain, West Virginia’s highest. To the west, the land is flanked by the 12,000-acre Laurel Fork Wilderness Area.
“Steve is helping us protect a 2-3 mile-wide, 555-acre “land bridge” between these two spectacular protected areas,” says Keith Fisher, director of conservation programs for the Conservancy in West Virginia. “He’s selling us a conservation easement at a bargain rate on 495 acres and donating a conservation easement on the other 60.”
Steve’s swath of land includes part of Gandy Creek, which, downstream, is great for trout fishing. Upstream, on Steve’s land, there’s room for improvement.
“Gandy’s feeder streams have brook trout in them, but they’re trapped,” explains Steve. “They can’t get into the mainstream. And when they do, there’s not enough cover and structure.”
Restoring Land, Reviving Brook Trout
In order to help revive this part of the property, the Conservancy secured a $300,000 grant from American Rivers and the Environmental Protection Agency to replant spruce and northern hardwood forest, eliminate non-native invasive species, fence out cattle, stabilize eroding banks and add fish habitat structures. Partners on the project, which will conclude in 2014, include Trout Unlimited, the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, the US Forest Service and the Mountain Institute.
Keith says he knows the so-called Gandy Ranch project will help the region continue on its trajectory of recovery. “Many of the lands and waters around here have been damaged by harmful logging, mining, dams and other development, but there are still plenty of opportunities for protection and revitalization,” he says.
In fact, Keith says the state is encouraging such efforts through its Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund, which helped support the Gandy Ranch project through a $190,000 grant. This is the first such grant the Conservancy has been a recipient of. The project was also supported with a $470,000 fund administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a $106,000 contribution from the West Virginia In Lieu Fee Mitigation Program and a $65,000 contribution from the Wildlife Conservation Society.
For his part, Steve says he ultimately wants the same thing as the Conservancy, and hopes his contributions create a lasting legacy. A CPA, he says everything is a matter of supply and demand. “Something that is scarce, like wildlands in the East, has more value than something that is plentiful. You can find parking lots anywhere.”