Rafters at this popular West Virginia spot, which was protected thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
New River Gorge Rafters at this popular West Virginia spot, which was protected thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. © Kent Mason

Stories in West Virginia

Nature and Economy Summits

A collaborative, multi-pronged approach to conservation in West Virginia

West Virginia and the Appalachian region face increasing impacts from a shifting economy. In the midst of this transition, nature — one of West Virginia’s strongest assets—has the potential to be a key catalyst for economic growth.

Since 2016, The Nature Conservancy has convened two first-of-their-kind Nature and the Economy Summits to explore how protecting and restoring the region’s resilient forests and waters can drive change for West Virginia’s economic future.

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Restoring a Forest

In West Virginia’s high country, one of the biggest challenges is to address the impacts from decades of mining and logging.  The red spruce forests here have been cut hard and have visible scars from mining that mark this treasured landscape, leaving them just hanging on.

Today, only about 5% of the original red spruce forests remain. In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other conservation groups, The Nature Conservancy’s goal is to restore 150,000 acres of decimated red spruce forest across the Central Appalachians.

One of the first projects to come out of this summit is the development of a business plan to demonstrate how improved forest management and carbon credits, solar energy and agricultural activities on formerly mined lands can contribute to the economy.

“With collaborative planning and scientific innovation, we can work together to grow West Virginia’s economy in ways that maximize environmental and economic benefits,” says Beth Wheatley, the Conservancy’s director of external affairs in West Virginia. “Nature-based economic development activities offer opportunities for us to create new jobs and revenue streams in concert with conserving our lands and waters.”

Red Spruce trees at Gaudineer State Park in WV
Gaudineer State Park Remains of old growth evergreen and red spruce in West Virginia. © Kent Mason

New Jobs and Revenue Streams

The summit facilitated a collaborative dialogue to analyze the challenges and opportunities at hand. Prominent topics included the roles of forest products and carbon credits, outdoor recreation-based tourism and solar energy in growing and diversifying the economy, providing new jobs and creating new revenue streams for land and mineral owners. For instance, participants discussed the possibilities for promoting new jobs through solar development on the thousands of acres of post-mined lands in West Virginia.

“We are facing some real challenges in determining how we may restore and reuse mine lands,” says Ed Maguire, environmental advocate with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. “The Nature Conservancy brought together the right mix of leaders to begin to dig into these challenges and identify some potential actions.”

“Nature-based economic development activities offer opportunities for us to create new jobs and revenue streams in concert with conserving our lands and waters.”

Director of External Affairs, West Virginia

Tough Questions, Creative answers

West Virginia’s unique positioning in the eastern United States as a significant place for drinking watercarbon-rich forests and scenic natural beauty remained central to the conversation. Whether working together to enhance tourism through the conservation of recreational hotspots or pursuing ways to promote revenue streams through responsible forest management and carbon credits, participants thought creatively and openly about how to achieve a thriving future for West Virginia.

“As an economist, I know the questions posed during the summit—particularly those regarding the potential role of nature-based economic development activities in contributing to economic growth in West Virginia—are tough questions,” says John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. “Yet questions like these need to be asked to prepare to seize new opportunities. I applaud The Nature Conservancy for having the courage to ask and summit participants for having the courage to begin to answer.”

Planting Seeds In West Virginia, TNC sees an opportunity to invest both capital and effort in nature-friendly economic development.