This landscape perched atop the Allegheny Front is arguably the Central Appalachian’s best known High Country. The landscape includes several adjoining, wind-swept plateaus: Dolly Sods, Flatrock Plains, Red Creek Plains, and Roaring Plains, which culminates in the 4,770-foot, spruce-clad summit of Mount Porte Crayon. Beside Dolly Sods lies Canaan Valley, the highest large valley in eastern North America. Within the valley is a 7000-acre expanse of wetlands, the largest anywhere in the unglaciated Appalachians.
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The extensive heathlands of blueberry, huckleberry, azalea and laurel atop Dolly Sods were present prior to settlement by Europeans, and archaeological evidence indicates Native Americans seasonally hunted and gathered berries here for thousands of years. Today, the region continues to be a popular destination for people, who are attracted to its unique plant and animal life.
Ecologically, this area is remarkably diverse and complex by any standard. Here some of the starkest ecological transitions in eastern North America meet in one landscape. The elevation rises from 1,100 feet at the base of the Allegheny Front to 4,770 feet at its highest crest. Additionally, the area is part of the Eastern Continental Divide, with waters to the east draining into the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, and waters to the west draining to form the Monongahela River, which via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers eventually drains into the Gulf of Mexico. And the Allegheny Front itself drives the “rain shadow,” a natural phenomenon resulting in some of the East’s heaviest precipitation along the western slope of the mountain, while the eastern foothills have some of the East’s lowest annual rainfall.
This range in elevation, topography and resulting weather combine to support distinctive plant communities. Bogs found on Dolly Sods and throughout Canaan Valley support a wealth of insectivorous sundews, cranberries and other northern plants. Other Canaan Valley wetlands perched on limestone outcrops are among the most biologically significant of all Appalachian wetlands. Canaan Valley also supports the region’s most extensive forests of balsam fir, which reach the southern limit of their range in West Virginia.
Originally, vast forests of spruce covered much of this area, but these were nearly destroyed by logging and subsequent fires. The legacy of this past has had lasting, harmful consequences to the plants and animals that depend upon the conifer forests and conifer-dominated wetlands for their survival. Though red spruce has struggled to come back, balsam fir is being decimated by an insect pest accidentally introduced from Asia. On a larger scale, other non-native invasive insects, plants and diseases are threating the vast diversity of wetlands and the forests that surround them. Perhaps most significant, resort and vacation home development are extensive and expanding. Current freeway construction linking this area with metropolitan areas to the east is likely to accelerate the rate of development.
Working with private partners, the Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy will affect conservation of this important region while accommodating the culture and livelihoods of local residents. In addition to traditional land protection of core parcels, our strategies include conservation of the remaining red spruce forests, restoration of balsam fir stands, reducing the impacts of non-native weeds, supporting research on heathlands and other key ecological features, and creating a deeper public understanding of this landscape’s ecological values and conservation needs. We will also work closely with government agencies and corporate landowners to promote conservation action on state park, national forest, national wildlife refuge and corporate lands.
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