By Daniel White
Since the early 1960s, thousands of West Virginians and visitors to the Mountain State have traveled back in time on the Cass Scenic Railroad. Whether you’re one of them, plan to visit, or simply hope future generations will also experience this vestige of the state’s pioneering spirit, you can rest assured that a significant portion of the surrounding land has been protected.
George and Darlene “Mickey” Deike settled in Pocahontas County some 40 years ago, in large part due to the historic railroad. Now, they’ve donated a conservation easement over their 884-acre Shalimar Farm that The Nature Conservancy and the West Virginia Agricultural Land Protection Authority co-hold.
The railroad’s vintage Shay steam engines and open-air passenger cars traverse Shalimar for nearly three miles. “Its sounds and whistle make a rather pleasant background,” says George Deike, who attributes his love of trains to growing up in an era when traveling and railroads were synonymous.
Shalimar nestles up against Whittaker Station, where passengers disembark to learn about the Cass area’s historic timber boom while enjoying expansive views of rolling hills and mountain peaks. Preserving the integrity of this mosaic of rural and wild lands from mounting development pressures was the Deikes’ goal when they began exploring conservation options.
“They’re a very conservation-minded couple,” says Ashton Berdine, the Conservancy’s private lands manager. “I think they see protecting farmland as something not only for local people to appreciate, but also as a means to save this area’s particular flavor of history and agriculture for future generations.”
For the Conservancy, though, the most interesting facet of the Deikes’ property isn’t something you can see from the train—or at all—without deeper investigation. To be precise, 323 feet deep.
That’s the mapped depth of Cass Cave, and the bulk of its 4.4 miles of passages run beneath Shalimar Farm. The farm is dotted with sinkholes, small shafts and other karst features that easily transport water from the surface to the subterranean realm.
Cass harbors at least three globally rare invertebrate animals and, reportedly, the endangered Indiana bat. Moreover, the cave is a critical haven for thousands of other hibernating bats. The Conservancy’s first goal with the conservation easement was to restrict potential development, which poses perhaps the greatest threat to such underground habitats and to the quality of groundwater on which many people depend.
Next on the priority list was protecting Shalimar’s forestland and Leatherbark Run, which parallels the railroad through the property. “Leatherbark Run supports a tremendous brook-trout fishery, so protecting that is certainly an added benefit,” says Berdine. “Shalimar also borders the Monongahela National Forest and is part of the Cheat Mountain landscape, which we’ve identified as a conservation priority in the Central Appalachians.”
“I love the diversity of this land,” says Mickey Deike. For the Deikes, who operate a small-scale equestrian retreat on their farm, a conservation easement represented a practical way to achieve their vision for the land they cherish. “What we hoped was that the places that were cleared, or where you could raise hay or farm a little, would remain in that state and the very considerable woodland would remain wild or go wilder,” says George.
Mickey adds, “If I could just impress one thing on everybody: Maybe you can’t save the world, but you can save your little piece of it.”
Daniel White is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy.