While admirers of natural and human history looked on, the National Park Service conferred the honor and presented a commemorative plaque to The Nature Conservancy, the private conservation organization which has protected the mountain’s namesake ice vents and vistas since 1989.
“Ice Mountain has been designated a National Natural Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior because it contains unique geological and biological features that contribute to the understanding of our nation’s natural heritage,” said Beth Johnson, Deputy Associate Director for Natural Resources Stewardship and Science of the National Park Service.
Ice Mountain, with a relatively low elevation profile of about 1,500 feet, earned its name – and its landmark designation – by virtue of the refrigeration effect that takes place inside its talus—a sloping mass of boulders at the foot of the mountain. During the winter, dense, cold air sinks deep into the talus, and ice masses form inside. As the weather warms, the cooler air flows out of vents among the rocks at the bottom of the slope.
As a result of this year-round natural air conditioning, the rocky slopes at the mountain’s base support many plant species normally found in much colder regions or at much higher elevations.
“We’re in debt to the many people who have helped to protect Ice Mountain over the years,” said Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. “First the people of North River Mills and Hampshire County who have known for generations that Ice Mountain is special. The Conservancy’s supporters, who provided the resources to protect this land. And to our volunteers who help us maintain it and keep the story of the mountain alive through countless guided tours.”
Ice Mountain is West Virginia’s 14th National Natural Landmark and one of 593 sites nationwide recognized by the National Park Service for such attributes as rarity, diversity, and value to science and education. Each site is identified and evaluated through a rigorous process – including a scientific evaluation and public comment period – to formally acknowledge its outstanding biological or geological features.
But even as the special features of Ice Mountain were being recognized, the Conservancy used the occasion to draw attention to the challenges facing land managers who are trying to maintain these beloved landmarks in the face of forest pests, invasive species, and a warming planet.
“No natural place is static – change is part of nature,” Bartgis said. “And although this place and the plants that live here have likely persisted since the end of the Pleistocene, there is no promise that it will remain as it is through the coming decades.”
Researchers from West Virginia University who have studied Ice Mountain’s ice vents since 2003 have recorded, for example, that the air coming out of the vents warmed to 1 degree Celsius at least three weeks earlier this year than any time since they began taking records. And the Conservancy has documented infestations of hemlock woolly adelgid, which could kill the hemlocks that shade the talus slopes, further aggravating the effects of climate change by exposing the ice vents to sunlight.
Helping the mountain withstand the onslaught of non-native invasive species, forest pests and diseases, and other stressors will make it more resilient to climate change. To make this nationally-recognized site stronger in the face of climate change, the Conservancy has been:
• Controlling non-native invasive weeds that threaten the native plants that make this place special. For example, Japanese stilt grass and garlic mustard threaten to crowd out rare plants.
• Monitoring for invasive species in order to respond quickly to new infestations.
• Surveying for harmful insects and diseases in native plants.
• Treating hemlocks to control the hemlock woolly adelgid that could kill these trees.
• Providing docent led hikes that help educate and inform visitors as to the unique qualities of the site and how our work helps protect this special place. Limiting visitation to docent led hikes also ensures that rare plants are not trampled.
While Ice Mountain is a particularly good example of how human-induced problems are bringing major changes to beloved landscapes, it’s important to recognize that, throughout America, many of our most important natural areas face an uncertain future. Climate change, for example, threatens many of the National Natural Landmark sites that have been recognized in high elevation areas of West Virginia, which provide habitat for plants and animals that normally exist at places much further north or much higher in elevation.
Non-native forest pests and diseases, invasive plants, human trampling and other stressors (such as deer browse) threaten natural plants either by killing them outright, crowding them out, or weakening them, making them more vulnerable in the face of a changing climate.
“This designation represents a commitment to partnerships and science-based conservation, and will allow the National Park Service to act as an advocate for the continued conservation of Ice Mountain and other National Natural Landmarks nationwide,” said Beth Johnson of the National Park Service.
Bartgis added, “Our work isn’t done here, and the Conservancy calls on all Americans to join us in our efforts to conserve and restore Ice Mountain and the rest of our National Natural Landmarks.”
The Conservancy’ 159-acre preserve is open to the public only through guided tours scheduled in advance. For more information see www.nature.org/icemountain
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.