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West Virginia

Smoke Hole/North Fork Mountain

“We found to our surprise that…it seemed as if we had been suddenly transported to the sand-barrens of New Jersey.”

—P.A. Rydberg describing Panther Knob, 1926 

Description
Coastal plain pine barrens atop Panther Knob.  Midwest prairies nestled within the Smoke Hole canyon.  The southernmost forests of native red pine clothing Pike Knob.  A cave with the largest concentration of wild mammals in the Central Appalachians.  This is a landscape in which surprises seem to lie beyond each ridge.

Certainly this landscape contains some of the most stunning beauty found in our state, from the 11-mile long Smoke Hole gorge along the South Branch of the Potomac, to the dramatic, 4000+-ft. peaks on North Fork Mountain.  Over 120 rare animals, plants and natural communities have been identified in this area, making it one of the richest concentrations of biological diversity in the East.  The variety is compelling, even to the most casual observer.

The prairies and associated cedar glades of the Smoke Hole are the largest in the Central Appalachians.  The prairies support a wealth of species, such as prairie flax and side oats gramma, that are otherwise found west of the Mississippi.  The cedar glades support a number of species restricted to this part of the Appalachians including Smoke Hole bergamot – a lovely, strikingly aromatic mint. 

The high, dry crests of North Fork Mountain support the largest pine barrens of the Central Appalachians—hundreds of acres of gnarled pines dwarfed by the harsh conditions and by thousands of years of recurring wildfires.  The summits also support virgin red pine and spruce forests, dramatic tundra-like communities of boreal plants, and a wonderful wealth of rare Appalachian and boreal species.

The marvels even extend underground, into extensive limestone caves.  Here is a very different world from that of the sunlit surface above.  Bats are the most apparent inhabitants, including 40% of all the endangered Virginia big-eared bats remaining on Earth and the largest colony of endangered Indiana bats left in the East.  One winter gathering of over 100,000 bats of several species constitutes the region’s largest concentration of wild mammals.  Bat guano and other organic debris support an array of invertebrates specially adapted to this bizarre ecosystem.  Having evolved in an eternally dark environment, most are blind and lack pigment.  Many exist nowhere else on Earth.

Threats
Because of its proximity to the large eastern metropolitan areas, this landscape is rapidly changing.  Vacation home developments have already spread across four of North Fork Mountain’s eight highest peaks.  In the 1990s, limestone quarrying destroyed the region’s highest quality cedar glade and another quarry currently may threaten the region’s most significant cave.  Settlement has already eliminated over 95% of the limestone forests of eastern North America and now aggressive non-native weeds are invading the remaining patches, including one of the largest remaining blocks, found in the Smoke Hole.

Conservation Action
Building on the success of the Campaign to Save North Fork Mountain (concluded in 1998), The Conservancy has completed a detailed conservation plan for this area.  In addition to moving forward with traditional acquisition and protection of core parcels, our plan includes researching and restoring key ecological processes such as fire, reducing competition from non-native weeds, and creating a deeper public understanding of this landscape’s ecological values and conservation needs.  We will also work closely with the Forest Service to promote ecologically compatible management of National Forest lands and with private landowners to provide guidance for conservation activities on their properties.

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