There are thousands of caves in West Virginia, with hundreds in the Greenbrier Valley alone. Among them are caves with passages measured in miles, including one of the largest cave systems in North America, with over 40 miles of known passage. Within these passages live beetles, spiders, millipedes, shrimp-like crustaceans, crayfish and a myriad of other organisms found nowhere else. A single Conservancy-owned cave supports a salamander and two types of beetle which exist nowhere else on earth. These underground creatures never see light; many have no eyes or pigmentation. The unusual caves and ecosystems of Greenbrier Valley are the result of complex hydrological processes which took shape over thousands of years.
Above, on the surface, the Greenbrier Valley is known as one of West Virginia’s most beautiful landscapes. Here are rolling farmlands, forested mountain slopes, small villages, and the Greenbrier itself, the longest free-flowing river in the state. Shale barrens found along tributaries of the Greenbrier are unique ecosystems—dry, almost desert-like habitats found only in the Central Appalachians. Nearly a dozen plants occur on shale barrens but are found nowhere else. Among them are Kate’s Mountain clover, yellow buckwheat, shale barren ragwort and shale barren evening primrose—all first discovered by scientist in the Greenbrier Valley. Some of the best quality shale barrens remaining on Earth thrive here, supporting healthy populations of the federally listed shale barren rockcress.
Groundwater contamination threatens both cave life and human water supplies. Cave entrances have been filled with trash, some caves have been damaged by highways and building construction and entire caverns have been eaten away by quarries. Many of the shale barrens in this region are adjacent to roads and grazed areas, setting the stage for invasions by aggressive, non-native weeds, which frequently crowd out native plants. Roads, utility lines and construction continue to gnaw away at the seemingly “worthless” barrens.
Working with partners from the local community and from caving organizations, the Conservancy hopes to advance research that will enhance our understanding of groundwater resources and ecological processes in this sensitive landscape. Our strategies will include working with partners and landowners to protect core parcels, cleaning polluted cave entrances and passages, addressing problems associated with non-native pests on the shale barrens, and creating a deeper public understanding of this landscape’s ecological values and conservation needs. We will also work closely with the Forest Service and private landowners to promote conservation action on National Forest and private lands.