By Randy Edwards
Caves make Ashton Berdine uncomfortable. It’s not just the inky darkness or the cold water or the tight, muddy passageways, he explains. There’s also the vivid memory of a cave survey that involved a dead raccoon blocking his route through an 18-inch high tunnel.
He shudders a little at the memory. “I’m not crazy about caving,” he admits. Still it’s his job, as the private lands manager for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, to survey the properties that are being reviewed for protection. This has kept him busy lately, as this year alone the Conservancy has protected more than 1,000 acres of cave country in West Virginia’s Central Appalachian Mountains, preserving a rarely seen but fascinating part of the state’s natural heritage.
So when presented with a one-foot by two-foot opening in a sinkhole on a particularly porous piece of land near Elkins, Berdine gamely crawled in, following biologist Dan Feller to find out what lived under the ground.
“We found the stream channel right away, and the water was just rushing through there,” Berdine recalls. “And it was cold!” Then the light from his headlamp illuminated a beautiful sight – a larger room, about six feet wide and three feet high, carved by the underground stream and decorated with white, straw-shaped stalactites that hung like curtains from the ceiling.
But there was more than fancy rock formations. The survey – and later inspections of caves in the area – turned up Virginia big-eared bats and a wealth of life forms found only underground, including colorless, cave-dwelling insects – called springtails – and a rare millipede.
In March, that cave and five others like it were protected in an agreement that conserved 272 acres of mountainside in Randolph County. In the agreement, the Conservancy purchased a conservation easement – a legal agreement that allows a private landowner to maintain ownership of property while restricting certain uses. In this case, the easement will permanently prevent commercial logging, mining and residential development on the property, which is surrounded by the Monongahela National Forest.
A similar easement was donated to the Conservancy this summer, protecting 934 acres of land near Lewisburg that is covered in forest and pasture and perforated with cave openings, sinkholes, springs and hidden underground streams. This agreement, between the Conservancy, Greenbrier County Farmland Protection Board, and the landowner, Dr. Jann Holwick, protects the rare subterranean habitat below and the fresh water that flows through it, while allowing the landowner to continue farming in an area where farmland is rapidly being lost.
The land projects completed this year are the most recent examples of how the Conservancy has been protecting cave and karst habitat throughout West Virginia. Earlier conservation efforts safeguarded the Conservancy-owned General Davis Cave and Piercy’s Cave, located not far from the Holwick land easement.
Karst refers to geology in which the bedrock, usually limestone, reacts with natural chemicals and weathering to form underground caves, sinkholes and streams. These caves, sinkholes and other underground features are home to many endangered plants, bats, rare cave-dwelling insects and tiny “cave shrimp.”
Most West Virginians won’t ever see these rare wonders, but protecting them is important, all the same. Beyond the intrinsic value of species diversity, conserving cave and karst habitats protects ground water resources and adds to the network of protected land in the biologically rich forests of the Central Appalachian Mountains – a region that runs from Pennsylvania to Tennessee and is considered one of the world’s most diverse broadleaf temperate forest areas.
“The conservation easement land in Randolph County, for example, is a beautiful piece of Appalachian mountainside, with a trout stream and a forest with rare plants like running buffalo clover and white monkshood,” said Rodney Bartgis, West Virginia state director for the Conservancy. “By protecting these properties we protect groundwater that is important for human uses and the quality of our surface streams. And we protect a host of creatures found only in the cave systems of West Virginia and nowhere else on Earth,” he said.
Randy Edwards is a senior media relations manager at The Nature Conservancy