Sister Rivers exchange: New collaborative with conservation resource alliance
Friends of the Cheat is extending north! Northwestish. We have established a new collaboration with Conservation Resource Alliance (CRA), an established nonprofit corporation based out of Traverse City, Michigan. CRA, similarly to FOC, works with private landowners, along with governmental agencies and businesses, to enhance wildlife habitat, remove barriers to aquatic life (such as dams), conserve and beautify land, and improve/increase recreational use of waterways that span many, many watersheds. CRA is currently celebrating 50 years of conservation work in the northwestern part of their state.
CRA’s River Care program works much like FOC’s Cheat River Restoration program, in that it maps out areas in need of restoration or improvement, works with local landowners, designs the appropriate plans, finds funding, and executes the project. When working in a particular watershed, CRA often partners with more localized watershed groups like FOC. CRA is the type of organization that WV is lacking - a centralized conservation group aimed to support smaller nonprofits in working through ever-changing environmental policies, while maintaining effective communication with corporations and commercial land owners. The combination of nonprofits like CRA + smaller watershed groups, along with strong community and regional funding - is a blueprint for extended success in FOC’s respective fields. Through this partnership, FOC is hoping to learn how to be that supporting organization for our fellow watershed and outdoor recreation-focused nonprofits.
The catalyst for what has been dubbed the “Sister Rivers” Exchange is long-time CRA supporters, DTE Energy - based out of Detroit. The DTE Foundation has given millions of dollars within Michigan and throughout the nation to support environmental initiatives, arts and culture, and community transformation. FOC has had success partnering with energy corporations in the past; we’re exploring this new ground with open eyes.
Sister Rivers is a 3 phased project, that involves both CRA and FOC identifying what type of collaboration would best benefit both organizations, and would result in shared marketing, and extended visibility for both groups. We are in the midst of Phase 1 - the “getting to know each other” phase. CRA staff traveled to WV in late May and spent 4 days with our staff. FOC introduced them to every section of the Cheat River: they floated a section of the Cheat River Water Trail at the Preston County Meet the Cheat event, cut their whitewater teeth on the Cheat Narrows, and even tackled the world-class rapids of the Cheat River Canyon. We took them to our “Crown Jewel” of acid mine drainage treatment sites--Railroad Refuse, where water enters our system with a pH in the low 3’s (similar to vinegar) and exits a healthy 7. We showed them the devastation of abandoned mine lands at Lick Run Refuse and Portals and Fickey Refuse, where the wounds of decades of acid mine drainage shock and awe the senses--orange stained waters, metallic smells, and lack of signs of life were all present. Some staff were left in tears at the sight of the damage, and all had a newfound fire lit in their hearts for the work FOC has been committed to.
While the exact dimensions of the collaboration are in flux, FOC is excited to learn from a nonprofit with 50 years of experience under its belt. CRA’s sustainable diversification of funding sources, and large scale, multi-year work plans have made the organization a highly competitive employer that is family oriented - with high employee retention rates, retirement plans, and fundraising incentives. While FOC is a competitive agency in our region, with benefit packages and incentives of our own, we also want to grow and evolve into the most successful organization we can be. Our 25th anniversary could not be a more opportune time to collaborate with CRA, take stock of their best practices and policies, compare and apply improvement to our own, and begin planning our next 25 years.
by Lauren Greco
25 Years. It’s funny how certain numbers resonate more than others. This one -- a quarter of a century, the age of someone who has survived adolescence and acquired a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, the only denomination of coinage with real utility -- felt like a big milestone for Friends of the Cheat and for the festival. For us, it was a yard-stick against which we could so clearly see improvement in our watershed. The time from the mine blowout that prompted the first festival and the formation of FOC, to the anniversary where we celebrated restoration of that same tributary (Muddy Creek), 25 years embodies so much effort, creativity, energy and love put towards caring for this slice of heaven.
For me, another number imbued with meaning this past year was two. My second time working with FOC and my second year organizing the festival. Returning to the Cheat offered me the gift of perspective to notice all of the growth that happens here over the short term. Many of the projects in progress when I was last at FOC have come to completion, and there are many new programs that were barely conceived of when I was here before. I am so damn excited to see all the new space created for work in the education and river access realms, and cannot wait to see the magic that I know will flow from this. In returning, I also saw so many familiar faces, staff and volunteers, whose commitment and focus embodies the immense value in rooting down in a place.
Returning to the festival for a second year was similarly gratifying. During my first go around in 2015, I felt like I was sprinting to keep up with the behemoth that was Cheat Fest; uncovering all of the mysterious yet crucial details and finding success in merely documenting what the event was. Having returned to the festival after its three years in the care of Ellie Bell, I had a markedly different experience. I felt all of the authenticity and life that comes from a community project, but with the structure and space that was desperately needed for an event of this size. This has given space for the organizers and volunteers to reflect, create and improve on things year after year in a way that wasn’t possible before.
This year we had upwards of 3,000 attendees, over 300 volunteers, and a rock star crew of Lead Volunteers, most of whom were folks who have been returning year after year (with a few notable new-comers who seriously stepped up!!). We raised the second highest sum of money in Cheat Fest history; funds that support the overhead and staff costs at Friends of the Cheat and provide stability in a way that grant funding can’t. We had a stellar line-up of bands whose gift of music breathed life into the weekend in a way that few other things can. We had a horrible forecast but, in my humble opinion, incredible weather. We had a perfect water level (which, by the way, promptly swelled the very next day). We had mud, but not too much. We had a great time. Well, I did.
Thanks all for being a part of it and I can’t wait to see your smiling faces again next year!
Original signatories of River of Promise
From left to right: Charlie Walbridge, Randy Robinson, Tom Nutter, Shelia Vulkovich, Dave Bassage, Troy Titchenell, Bill Thorne, Jim Snyder, Rick Buckley, Craig Mains, Frank Jernejcic, Larry Harris, Courtney Black, Peggy Pings, Paul Ziemkievwicz, Mykl Messer, and Amanda Pitzer. Photo by Heather Kessler.
2019 Meet the Cheat Events
On June 1st and 9th, 2019, FOC and the Cheat River Water Trail Committee (CRWT) hosted the popular Meet the Cheat events - in collaboration with Blackwater Outdoor Adventures, West Virginia Land Trust, and Preston County Parks and Recreation Commision. Collectively, over 400 participants floated 12 miles of the water trail.
Attendees at the Preston County event enjoyed a complimentary picnic provided by the Rowlesburg Park, and lawn games organized by PCPaRC. Guests at the Tucker County event enjoyed a post paddling picnic, with beer donated by Mountain State Brewing, pizza and wings from CJ’s Pizzeriaand and Parsons Pizza, homemade chicken BBQ from CRWT committee members Dave and Pam Ruediger, and salads and drinks from Whitegrass and CRWT committee member Janet Preston.
News of our fantastic water trail is traveling all over! The CRWT was recently the featured story of the June issue of Smoky Mountain Living magazine, based out of Asheville, NC. To keep the water trail usable for locals and out-of-towners, you can pick a CRWT map at the Tucker County CVB, BOA outpost, FOC office, and many Welcome Centers in Tucker, Preston, and Randolph counties. Remember, you can always go to cheatriverwatertrail.org for all your float trip needs.
The Meet the Cheat events grow in attendance every year! If you or your business would like to get involved with these great community events, contact FOC staffer Beth Warnick at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details. See you on the water!