By Randy Edwards
At the Big Bend Campground in the Monongahela National Forest, sunburned anglers and car-camping families rest in the relative coolness of Smoke Hole Canyon and enjoy the spectacular scenery surrounding them along the South Branch of the Potomac River.
Few of the campers probably realize that the vertical cliffs of the canyon rim supply more than just beautiful scenery. They also support some of the rarest plant communities in West Virginia, such as limestone glades and dry limestone white cedar woodlands found only in the Central Appalachian Mountains.
Ashton Berdine, The Nature Conservancy’s private lands manager, says that one such cliff near the summit of High Knob harbors at least seven rare plant species and affords one of the best views he’s seen of Smoke Hole Canyon. That could mean only one thing: “Sooner or later, someone would have wanted to put a cabin here, with the deck built right out to the edge of the cliff,” Berdine says.
But now, thanks to the landowners’ great love for the property and desire to forever protect the view, no building will ever destroy the rare plants on the cliff or interrupt the natural scenic view from the Big Bend campground.
Working with the Conservancy and the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund, landowner William Puffenberger and his sons, Erik and Mark, donated a conservation easement that will forever protect 200 acres along the canyon rim—land that adjoins the Monongahela National Forest’s Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks Recreation Area. The property, a hunting retreat that has been in the family for three generations, will remain in family ownership but with development restrictions now permanently protecting the conservation values of the property.
“It’s a perfect example of the recreational value of West Virginia’s forests,” Berdine says. “The family loves to hunt. While they could have made more money in the near term selling the land for development, they were very serious about making sure they were leaving something for future generations to enjoy.”
The easement will be held and enforced by the Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund, the organization established in 2009 to protect the Mountain State’s important natural areas. The easement is the Fund’s second land protection project and demonstrates its growing maturity as a land conservation organization, Berdine says. The Conservancy assisted in negotiating the Puffenberger easement and has been helping to build the Fund’s capacity, working side by side with it to inform the Fund’s first few agreements.
The Puffenberger easement is the latest chapter in the Conservancy’s efforts to protect the unique habitats of Smoke Hole Canyon, an effort that began with the 1,600 acres of land the Conservancy protected under an easement there in 2004. But conservation work doesn’t end with protecting the land. The Conservancy has worked with the Potomac Highlands Cooperative Weed & Pest Management Area to fight spotted knapweed, viper’s bugloss and other non-native invasive plants that threaten the rare limestone communities in the canyon. The Conservancy has also worked to restore red cedar woodlands and their prairie-like understories, creating a demonstration area to inform other canyon land managers of useful management techniques for the rare plant communities.