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Into the Canyon Winter 2021 Newsletter of Friends of the Cheat

Immediate Business:

  1. Donate to the FOC Campground Water Fundraiser! With an initial goal of $2500 - FOC is raising funds to install a water line and at least 2 spigots at the FOC Campground. More details below!
  2. Keep an eye on cheatfest.org and the Cheat Fest Facebook Page for upcoming details about the 2021 Virtual Cheat River Festival. There will be some in-person events - such as the Cheat Canyon Massacre-ence (May 1st!) - throughout the entire month of May.

Into the Canyon - Newsletter of Friends of the Cheat Winter 2021

Board of Directors and Key Personnel

Amanda Pitzer, Executive Director; Owen Mulkeen, Associate Director; Madison Ball, Restoration Program Manager; Garrett Richardson, Monitoring Technician; Valorie Dixon, Bookkeeper; Beth Warnick, Media and Outreach Specialist

Board Members

Chair: Lisa Maraffa, Vice Chair: Charlie Walbridge, Treasurer: Miranda Peddicord, Secretary: Sarah Hinnant, Stratford Douglas, Connie Miller, Ben Hogan, Rick Chaney, Zach Fowler, Michael Strager, Dani Martin, Rich Dennis

Return of the Kings: Hellbenders Reclaim their Rightful Cheat River Throne

by Madison Ball

The noble Eastern Hellbender emerges from its rock dwelling to explore
Scarcely a living fish remained in the Cheat River between its forks at Parsons and its confluence with the Monongahela River, a distance of 75 miles...The West Virginia Natural Resource Commission learned that cattle had died from drinking the waters of the Cheat River, a stream once synonymous with purity.” -Description of the Cheat River in the early 1900’s,Transforming the Appalachian Countryside, Ronald L. Lewis
FOC Restoration Program Manager, Madison Ball

When I think of some of my favorite places along the Cheat River-- Holly Meadows, the mouth of Horseshoe Run, Seven Islands, the famous “Narrows” and Cheat River Canyon-- it is hard to picture the devastation that took place here. We at FOC often focus on our more recent rebirth story of the Lower Cheat from Rowlesburg to Cheat Lake, but fewer know that the Cheat’s entire length has been to the depths of hell and back.

During the early 1900’s, the Cheat River became a toxic slurry of several pollutants, including acid mine drainage, untreated sewage, tannery chemicals, and sediment. Fish kills were not uncommon during this period, as a 1929 Report from West Virginia Wildlife Magazine documented:

“The week of August 4th brought to state officials in Charleston the news of wholesale killing of fish in the Cheat River...the damage appears to have been inflicted between Parsons to Seven Islands, a distance of 16 miles, although dead fish were reported to have been found in quantities as far down the river as Albright. Attorney Dailey said that he had “never heard of such an outrageous destruction of fish life.”

It can be assumed during this dark period that Hellbenders, one of our most sensitive species to pollution, were pushed entirely out of the mainstem, either perishing or moving to cleaner water in our tributaries.

Luckily we are learning that river systems are resilient, when given the chance. Relief to the Cheat consisted of protecting our headwaters by establishing the Monongahela National Forest, the signing of the Clean Water and Clear Air Acts, the establishment of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and the work of many organizations to address severe sources of acid mine drainage. Slowly and consistently, we have watched the river rebound.

Ultimately, these actions have led to something remarkable: the Cheat in its entirety is healthier now than it has been in over a century. I don’t think this is said loudly and often enough.

As we have documented improved water quality throughout the Cheat River, we’ve heard whispers of the mighty Hellbenders’ return. One spotted on a paddling trip. One caught on a hook and line by accident and returned. Were these one-time sightings? Misidentifications? We wanted, nay, needed to know more.

Hellbender on the Cheat River Water Trail - Photo by Dave Hough

Because of the secretive nature of these mysterious creatures, they are often difficult to locate. They spend a large portion of their lives under one particular rock, of which their camouflaged skin gives them the perfect disguise. Flipping the rock to look for them ruins the structure and security of their home.

Luckily, new technology helped FOC literally test the waters for Hellbenders. FOC conducted our first ever environmental-DNA study in the Fall of 2020. By passing flowing river water through a filter, a laboratory is able to test the filter for Hellbender DNA. If positive, it can be assumed that one or more Hellbenders are upstream near the sample location. If negative, it may mean that Hellbenders aren’t present there or there was not enough Hellbender DNA in the water to detect them.

Well folks, we got the results back. And they are jaw dropping. While I had nightmares for months about all of our samples coming back negative, a sign of perhaps a futile effort, the results were positive for Hellbender DNA across 45 miles of the Cheat River. Of the 14 samples collected in the Cheat River mainstem, 7 came back positive for Hellbender DNA from Parsons to Albright.

However, with knowledge comes great responsibility. Now that FOC has confirmed the presence of Hellbenders in the Cheat it is our duty to protect them through maintaining and improving water quality and helping them continue to recolonize the Cheat River. Environmental DNA, as powerful a tool as it is, cannot tell us the health of the Cheat River Hellbender population. It cannot tell us if the Hellbenders are healthy and reproducing, thriving, or just surviving. It can only tell us where they have been detected, and where we have failed to detect them.

While the story of the Cheat and its Hellbenders is one of a phoenix, the story doesn’t stop here. There is so much more work to be done. Hellbenders have yet to be detected in the Cheat River Canyon, perhaps due to the legacy of acid mine drainage. However, water quality continues to improve and as we see with our positive results, the Hellbenders are reclaiming areas that were once aquatic wastelands.

Another explanation for why Hellbenders were not detected in the Canyon is that the Albright Dam is blocking their route to recolonization. Six Cheat River samples came back positive upstream of the Albright Dam, one as close as 3 miles upstream. Just one sample immediately downstream of the dam came back positive. Because eDNA monitoring has the potential to detect DNA that travels in the water for hundreds of feet, it is possible that the positive result is related to a Hellbender just upstream of the dam. If so, opening the gateway for Hellbenders into the Cheat Canyon is one more reason this obsolete dam needs to go.

In summary, it cannot be overstated that without:

  1. the protection of our headwaters by public lands
  2. the signing of the Clean Water and Clear Air Acts
  3. the establishment of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act
  4. the massive efforts to improve water quality from mining impacts

We would not have seen the return of these kings of water quality.

With this in mind, it is important to remember that acid mine drainage treatment is never one-and-done restoration, it is a centuries long commitment to treating acidic mine water. The SMCRA (Surface Mining Control Reclamation Act) AML Fund allows groups like FOC to treat new sources of acid mine drainage and maintain existing treatment sites. The Fund expires this year without reauthorization from Congress. Without these funds, we could see the reversal of water quality improvements in the Cheat River, and harken back to those hellish days behind us.

Additionally, our voices are important to guide management on public lands which protect the Cheat’s headwaters. When we are silent we lose the opportunity to further improve water quality and advocate for preservation and better management.

So, since the Hellbender is an indicator of the quality of everyone’s water, for the Hellbender’s sake and for all our sakes please stay tuned on how to help FOC secure the reauthorization of SMCRA’s AML fund and make sure to use your voice on management on public lands. We need you, and so do the Hellbenders.

And next time you're cruising down the Cheat River Water Trail or shreddin’ the Narrows, say “Hello” and tip your hat to the Hellbenders below you.

Photo by Chad Landress

A Huge Thank You to our Donors!

Cheat Watershed Sponsors: Walbridge Family Foundation, Charlie Walbridge, Margaret Walbridge, Eliza Walbridge, Patrick & Lisa Ward

Stream Stewards: Robert Uram, Susan & Don Sauter, David Brisell, Thomas & Hope Covey, Stratford Douglas & Jodie Jackson, Toddi Steelman & Joe Sinsheimer, John & Emy Hinnant, Szilagyi Family Foundation, Paul & Betty Connelly, Steelheimer Fund at the Chicago Community Foundation, Healthberry Farm, Jen Sass & Michael Graham, Robert Moore, The Reed Foundation, The Oakland Foundation, Megan & Bill Carlson

For the period November 1 through Jan 29

Canyon Contributors: Justin Cameron, Anne & Gerald Perry, Margot Stiles, Anne Kibler, Dick Volkman, Nancy Abrams & Stanley Einzig, Jay Mullen, Pamela Schwer, Giles Wright, Keel-Haulers Canoe Club, Scott Mitchell & Daniel Cardinali, Roger Calhoun, John Kobak

Narrows Navigators: Adam Webster, Mowry Smith III, Charles Duffy, Robin & Adam Bensonson, Allie Smith, Steve Taylor, David & Robin Barnett, Brent Bailey, Mark Gavin & Jodi Goodman, Kathy DeWitt, Don & Martha Ferguson, Visit Mountaineer Country Convention & Visitors’ Bureau, Dale & Carolyn McVicker, Heather Lukacs & Kyle Doerksen, Dave & Lena Cerbone, Charles & Kathy Lilly, David Ramsey & Jeanine Smith, Elizabeth Wilson & William Guthrie, Peter Bernstein, Knecht Family Charitable Fund, BioMost Inc, Alyeska Inc, Mykl Messer, Anonymous, Tim DeBerry

Confluence Crew: Ben Badger & Jessica Zamias, Ruth & Douglas Willenborg, Roger & Linda Abrahams, Mitchell Klein, Richard Cohen, Amy Conger, David Greenwald, William & Kathryn Tuscano, David Talmage & Fern Abrams, Tarrell & Monica Ries, Meredith Dreistadt, Eric Carlson, Brian Oxford, Sarah Daugherty, Thomas Pue, Freefolk Brewery, David Gross, Jack & Mary Alice Sanders, Daria & Randy Jones, Harry & Linda Grandon, Lizbeth Pyle, Mac Thornton

Five Forks Friends: Jacob Zells, Charles & Nancy Brabec, Diane Macklin, Douglas Manning, Donald & Jane Martin, Jen & Greg Short, Greg Dick, Christopher Lazzell, Dr. Donald DeLorenzo, Peter Wentzel, Juliet Marlier, Katie Plum, Sarah Cunningham, Erin Hartman, Ruth Geiger, Thomas Beres, James Howell, Judith Clister, Robert Alexander, Bill & Anna Mae Thorne, Carol Nix, Harry Grandon, Chris Lubic, Oliver W Eckert, Scott & Denise Gravatt, Caroline Coleman, John Sweet, Michael & Amy Savage, Kerren Hall, Lou Schmidt

Good ‘Ole Friends: Lisa Glassman, Lisa Libowitz, Michael Burk, Richard Hewitt, William Sheppell, Matt Kearns, Sarah Lilly, Paul Lange & Karen Frank, Eric & Diane Gehres, Ken Durr, Andy Davis, Janie Lou White, Deb Hemler & Roger Opel, Larry & Susan Miller, Robert Sypolt & Carolyn Baumgardner, Phil & Mary Wotring, Gerald Andy, Timothy Zinn, Lisa Thrush, Steven Whitmer, Jodi & Bert Davis, Charlies Badger, Edward Gertler, Harris Wright, Joan Breiding, Joel Beane, Jay Paxton, Don Frew, Kaycie Stuchek & Donald Brown, Michael Bradley, Steve Kelso, Gregory Cronin, Steve & Vicky Koch, Ted Borgna, Vicky Shears, Lawrence & Carol Burdick, Michael & Barbara Schroering, Brad & Sheila Daugherty, Marcia Hamm, Thomas Hackman, Barbara Horn, Martha Summers, Robert & Lova Yanero, Sarah Daugherty

Swim Guide Donors: Adam Webster

#GivingTuesday Donors: David Brisell, Todd Ensign, Amy Estep, Monica Fronzaglio, Gretchen Swecker, Lea Childlow, Stephen Bodnar, Caitlin Sullivan, Darla Sietsma, Shelby Earls, Michal Jarnik, Cara Damm, Sarah Hinnant, Kendra Hatcher, Alice Fleischman, Grant Smith, Joey James, Jennifer Cooper, Emma Donovan, Ben Badger & Jessica Zamias, Robert & Dee Leggett, Jim Hunt, Douglas & Margaret Richardson, Robert Vagnetti, Joel Wolpert, Steven Runfola, Dave Hough & Cyndy Graves

Keith Pitzer Memorial Stage Fund: Virginia Zetty, Jack & Ann Clough, Todd Burge, Leigh & Tim Williams, Adam Webster, Taryn & Evan Moser, Barbara Evans-Fleischauer, Barbara Regan, Duane Lazzell & Sally Wilts, Kim & Fred Wright, Joan Pitzer

CAPABLE Program Donors: Connie Miller, Andrew, Louisa, & Wesley Miller, Newton G. Gorrell, William R. Lickert Jr, Michael Miller & Kelly Pack Family

FOC Executive Director, Amanda Pitzer, and the cutest-ever friend to the Cheat, Emmitt Skip

Well hello Friends! It is not an understatement to say that the world has changed a lot since I composed my last Sinuosity piece. 2020 was, well, twenty-twenty. When selecting the “Word of the Year” the dictionary people considered “2020” or “twenty-twenty” as a noun to describe an unprecedented, interconnected series of events. And haven’t we all had those. My twenty-twenty started off with Jeff and I finding out we were going to be parents and on the same day my best friend’s house burnt down. By mid-March we were facing down Covid-19 and a cancelled Cheat Fest. Cancelled everything. But while so many aspects of life stood still, so much continued to change in my personal sphere and across the country. People were dying. Communities united in protest for black lives. In the midst of it all, I bought a home on Scotch Hill and moved a few weeks before we joyously welcomed our perfect, happy, baby - Emmitt Skip. Then, a few days after I came back to work, our sweet dog Pepper passed away tragically after a short illness. The swing from high to low is so hard. Big wave trains - we are all holding on.

Majestic Pepper in Lick Run - Photo by Michael Sherwin

Despite a cancelled in-person Cheat Fest and several months of completely remote work, Friends of the Cheat staff have made the absolute best of the worst situation of our lifetimes. I am fortunate to work with this dedicated team who also take each other’s health and safety to heart. We sure miss the conference room talks and working ideas out on our fancy dry erase boards. And, as you can read in this newsletter, we have plenty to work on.

We trudge forward one step at a time down the path to the construction of the Cheat River Rail-Trail and trailhead at the Preston Site. The regulatory hoops are significant, and we still don’t know the thickness or locations of required capping. We are learning the hard way that cheap property isn’t cheap to develop. But, good things come to those who wait and it will be so rewarding to finally see this vision come together. While counting cars along the Narrows, I can visualize the trail on river right with baby Emmitt cruising along without training wheels. In the meantime, FOC is leading regional trail network organization efforts while planning multiple projects on the Allegheny Trail, at the Lick Run portals, whitewater roads, and our own campground.

The pandemic has gotten a lot of people outdoors to recreate. Last summer local stores were sold out of recreational kayaks, bicycles, and transport racks! I hope those new to outdoor activities stick with it so they can enjoy the resources we are working so hard to develop. Newbies who try a new activity, whether it is fishing or whitewater boating, rely on others who are experienced to mentor them. People need this support to preserve through the “learning” phase of a new activity that requires specialized knowledge. I would have never bought my own Thrillseeker or raft if I hadn’t been thrown into a community of whitewater guides 16 years ago. I wouldn’t have had that first amazing experience to interest me. I wouldn’t have had someone criticizing my J-stroke, or telling me where NOT to swim. It is a bit more challenging right now to reach out and provide that support. But, I am hopeful that this long period away will result in more patience and openness from those with skills to share.

I’ll be sharing some of my knowledge, too: I was recently nominated as a Commissioner to the state’s new Flatwater Trails Commission. I am hopeful my involvement with this group as well as the work of the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority will benefit the Cheat River valley’s outdoor economy. It feels great to pivot from strictly defense - the RESTORE aspect of our mission - to the PROMOTE component of our work.

Flatwater Paddlers on the Cheat River Water Trail in Rowlesburg, WV

Our promotion work isn’t without obstacles. One being perception, even that of those plugged into the conservation community. FOC recently confirmed the presence of Eastern hellbenders throughout the Cheat River main stem, including eDNA hits downstream of the AMD-impacted tributaries draining the Kingwood area. Experts had never studied the Cheat River main stem for hellbender because it was thought that it was impossible for the clean-water loving giant salamanders to have survived the pollution of the early 20th century.

Promotion, outreach, and education efforts have had to be re-tooled due to Covid. Nothing will replace in-person community meetings with bad coffee and long-winded speeches. I actually miss those. Instead we are working on good, old-fashioned printed booklets, snail mail, and videos. We are entering the sprint to get Congress to re-authorize the collection of the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fee. FOC partners in Pennsylvania continue to lead the way on this effort, and we are thankful to have their expertise. At the time I write this, the Senate has yet to pass an organizational resolution so our path forward is still murky. Despite having a bi-partisan bill, we will be fighting hard for attention during the first hundred days of this new administration (which coincidentally concludes on what would be Cheat Fest weekend). It is likely that if AML re-authorization doesn’t get passed by July, Congress will move into budget mode and the deadline of September 30, 2021 will come and go. Stay tuned for a special production on the Cheat River and the importance of the AML fee by filmmaker Robert Tinnell to be released in coming weeks!

I’m sad to report that for the second year in a row we will not have an in-person Cheat River Festival. BUT, at this time, we ARE planning several, outdoor socially-distanced events throughout the entire month of May!

PADDLE BIKE RUN CLIMB FISH HIKE LISTEN LEARN SHARE SERVE GIVE

Cheat Canyon Down-River Race - Photo by Gabe Dewitt

The 2021 Cheat Canyon Massacre-ence is set for Saturday, May 1st! Stay tuned for more details and pre-registration links soon at cheatfest.org and through the Cheat Fest Facebook page.

FOC is seeking organizational and business partners for Cheat Fest month events, as well as support from volunteers. If you have an idea for a mutually-beneficial partnership, event, or service project that embodies the spirit of Cheat Fest - let us know! We would love to team up!

Speaking of service projects, one way you can get your Cheat Fest tank full this year is by organizing a work group campout. Round up your pod and roll up your sleeves (but stay six feet away please) to help FOC with hands-on services projects including Adopt-a-Highway and other litter cleanups, work on the Allegheny Trail in the Cheat Canyon, and installation of public water at the FOC festival site! Reserve your work days by connecting with Beth at bwarnick@cheat.org before the calendar fills up.

And, finally, some of you may be thinking...how in the world is FOC funding their impactful work without the profits from two, consecutive festivals? Well, in short, YOU! Our donors have been steadfast. A 2020 Payroll Protection Program loan also helped FOC keep moving downstream. However, FOC will not qualify for a second PPP loan due to higher grant revenue in 2020 than 2019 - despite the fact that FOC paid all of this added grant revenue out to contractors and collected no administrative fees. Like so many other systematic problems in our society, the pandemic highlights how nonprofits continue to do essential work that the government can’t or won’t with inadequate funding, minimal structural support, and all the while defending our below-average compensation and squabbling over 4 pennies on a reimbursement form. END RANT. (Please donate if you can.)

Wow, this column was a twenty-twenty wasn’t it? Highs, lows, and everything in between. Y’all stay safe and sane. Take care of each other. I believe there are brighter days ahead (and a lot of hard work).

FOC RECEIVES GRANT FROM JUST TRANSITION FUND

by Owen Mulkeen

In late December 2020, FOC received an early Christmas gift from the Just Transition Foundation. FOC was awarded a $50k grant from the private foundation to continue our work on the formation of the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority (MTNA).

This grant is a follow up to our Appalachian Regional Commission technical assistance grant for the Preston County Master Trail Plan. That grant paved the way for the first comprehensive county-wide plan for Preston as well as facilitated the appointment of board members to the Mountaineer Trail Network. At the conclusion of the ARC funding, FOC, along with project partners Downstream Strategies, were able to secure 12 board appointments from 8 different counties ( Barbour, Grant, Lewis, Mineral, Preston, Taylor, Tucker, and Upshur) within the 15 county network.

Map of the 15 County Network of the MTNA

The new funding from Just Transition will tackle the mission-critical step of legally formalizing the MTNA, so that a trail-based economic transformation of northern WV can continue.

The formation of the MTNA will allow for private landowners to be relieved of liability for allowing trail use to take place on their land. This formula for trail expansion into private lands has been enacted across the country. From Vermont to Washington state, there is precedent in trail networks providing a full spectrum of benefits to trail users; this includes regional marketing, cohesive trail planning, and even representation at the local and state government level.

Many benefits will come from all the hard work we’re doing now. What is that hard work, you ask?

  1. Establish a checklist of legal start-up and operating guidelines for a non-motorized trail network authority in West Virginia.
  2. Convene the initial MTNA board, appoint officers, and establish a schedule for meetings of the full board and executive committee.
  3. Prepare, adopt, and file legal and other governing documents, including bylaws, articles of incorporation, and basic operating procedures in accordance with the checklist (item #1).
  4. Develop a basic funding strategy to sustain MTNA’s long-term operations.
  5. Produce a toolkit for legal guidance and best practices for setting up a trail authority, which will help others following in our footsteps.

The outdoor recreation economy in WV is fast afoot. Our time has come to navigate towards this promising future as a means of a ‘just transition.’ A ‘just transition’ away from the extractive industries and policies that have hampered our state’s potential in what we now broadly recognize as a haven for outdoor pursuits and the economics that follow. FOC hopes to continue that process right here at home in Preston County, armed with more tools in the toolbox to further capture all the possible trail opportunities!

FOC CAMPGROUND WATER FUNDRAISER

Help us bring water to the people! FOC is raising funds to install water lines and spigots at our primitive campground located at the Beech Run entrance to the Cheat River Festival grounds - with the goal of extending the water lines into the festival grounds, themselves.

Our goal for the first phase of this project is $2500 - with a $500 match already provided by an enthusiast donor! Phase 1 will result in a water spigot near the entrance to the campground, and another at the self-pay kiosk by the gate. To pull this off, FOC will use volunteer labor to dig approximately 600 feet through the left field of the campground to lay the water lines. Work will occur in April, so the campground will be ready for regular use come May.

The FOC Campground had a successful first summer - whitewater paddlers, hikers, and cyclists made it their Cheat River homebase while safely enjoying the many recreational opportunities in the area. And although the 2021 Cheat Fest is again virtual, we will have some in-person events throughout the month of May - including the famous Down River Race! Accompanying the in-person events will be an optional volunteer day for those staying at the campground - stick around and help FOC pick up litter along our Adopt-a-Highway route on Rt. 26, or flex your trail maintenance muscles working on the Allegheny Trail! We’ll be releasing a calender of events soon.

Part of a canoeing club, running group, etc? We’re encouraging groups who’d like to stay at the campground and have a volunteer day at any point over the summer to contact us for specialized rates! Email Beth Warnick at bwarnick@cheat.org for more information.

It’s been a long winter - but the spring/summer season is just around the corner! We’re excited to see campers enjoying the new water facilities, and helping FOC care for our beautiful watershed.