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Into the Canyon Fall 2020 NEWSLETTER OF FRIENDS OF THE CHEAT

Immediate Business:

  1. This #GivingTuesday, FOC will be raising funds for our Education & Outreach program, which funds our involvement with community partners and local schools, and quarterly publications such as the grand one you're reading right now. Tune into the FOC Facebook page on Tuesday, Dec. 1 as we revisit the recorded talents of our many musical friends from the 2020 Virtual Cheat Fest and links to donate.
  2. Preston Trail Towns, a Project of Friends of the Cheat, is excited to announce its 2021 Partner Program! Through this project, community groups, town governments, town parks, and small businesses can apply for up to $3000 for supplies and itemized costs for community Improvement projects, public art, and outdoor recreation infrastructure in any of the four current Preston Trail Town areas: Albright, Kingwood, Rowlesburg, and Tunnelton. Read on for more information and/or visit the project's webpage for an application.

Into the Canyon - Newsletter of Friends of the Cheat Fall 2020

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: Stratford Douglas, Secretary: Sarah Hinnant, Connie Miller, Ben Hogan, Rick Chaney, Zach Fowler, Michael Strager, Dani Martin, Rich Dennis

JENKINSBURG PUBLIC ACCESS PROTECTED

by Charlie Walbridge

Friends of the Cheat is excited to announce that West Virginia Land Trust has acquired the Jenkinsburg Recreation Area and the site is secured for public access! FOC will be partnering with WVLT and assisting in the long-term management of the property. You can support the campaign for site management at www.wvlandtrust.org/donate and designate your gift for Jenkinsburg!

When I first ran the Cheat Canyon in October of 1971, the Jenkinsburg takeout at the High Bridge was a wild and isolated place. Its days as a rowdy logging camp in the 1920's were long gone. The slopes were covered by head-high rhododendron, and only a single narrow track led down to the river. Over the next 35 years, the popularity of the place grew enormously. During the late 70’s and early ‘80’s, Jenkinsburg was the takeout for 40,000 commercial guests who ran the Cheat Canyon each year. Many others braved terrible roads to get there, sit back, and enjoy the place. Highschoolers, college kids, local families, and visitors all wanted to get close to the Cheat River.

Most of these people caused no damage, but as their numbers grew, serious impacts were inevitable; Fire destroyed the rhododendrons, access areas widened, and new paths were beaten down. Large crowds of people came to swim, camp, and hang out. Wild parties were the norm on warm-weather weekends, and sometimes the partying got out-of-hand. Swimmers drowned, sometimes after ill-considered jumps from the High Bridge. Huge amounts of trash accumulated.

As ATV riding became more popular, the Jenkinsburg/High Bridge area turned into a muddy theme park. Giant mud holes capable of swallowing entire vehicles developed and riders lined up to test their skills. Fun, but very destructive! Sometimes people loading boats were unnerved as ATV’s drove at high speeds within a few feet of where they stood. The entire property became criss-crossed with muddy trails to nowhere. A shuttle car left overnight was set on fire, and at one point, a body was dumped there!

Whitewater paddlers who used the place as a takeout for the Cheat and Big Sandy Rivers watched with bemusement and frustration as the “show” got wilder and wilder. The Cheat Canyon was then owned by Allegheny Power, which had a “hands off” policy towards the area. The place was 30 minutes away from the nearest town over rough roads, and the small Preston County Sheriff’s department rarely patrolled. What happened here was “over the hill” - out of sight and out of mind until a tragedy occurred. The beauty of the place, and its potential for outdoor enjoyment, was slipping away.

In 2004, the Cheat Canyon was offered for sale, and the State of West Virginia was outbid by Allegheny Wood Products (AWP). AWP turned down offers from FOC to manage and improve the site, and whitewater paddlers became concerned about losing access. But, like the power company, AWP management was pretty hands-off. In 2006, Dave Hough, part owner of Mountain Streams and Trails Outfitters, made a land swap with AWP and became the owner of the place. He wanted to allow public river access, but he also needed to protect his land from abuse. He approached FOC - Keith Pitzer and I offered our help.

In exchange for a 20-year access agreement, FOC teamed up with American Whitewater to raise $20,000 from paddlers. We obtained a $16,000 matching grant from the West Virginia DEP. The area received a total makeover. The upper parking lot was graded and enlarged, then ringed with large boulders to protect the rest of the property from off-road vehicles. The lower parking lot was expanded, and the road to it improved to accommodate outfitter busses and equipment trucks. A gate was installed to control vehicle access beyond the upper parking area. A path to the main raft takeout at the mouth of the Big Sandy River was hardened to resist erosion with a special honeycomb fabric. It looked great, but there were still challenges ahead!

It was clear from the outset that the rowdy element liked things the way they were. The first week, someone tore out the gate and burned signs posted at the access. FOC replaced the gate with a much stronger version, but ATV’s continued to create their own trails through the woods and down to the river. One afternoon a particularly irate (and intoxicated) local climbed up on the roof of a paddler’s car. He screamed curses as he dropped his pants and mooned the crowd.

Matt Schafer, a paddler and DNR enforcement officer, made protecting the area a personal crusade. He spent many free afternoons there, issuing dozens of citations and confiscating a number of trespassing ATV’s. He felt that much of the destructive behavior was tied to the drug trade because many of the people he cited were carrying drugs. Thanks to him, that crowd found another place to hang out!

Myself, Dave Hough, and others patrolled the site regularly. Rather than confront abusers, we simply repaired the damage and hauled away pickup truck loads of trash. We blocked unwanted ATV trails with fencing. We brought in outside contractors to add gravel and replace perimeter rocks that had been rolled. We persisted, year after year. Gradually, things improved. Many visitors helped out by picking up litter during their visit. FOC still patrols the area, but damage is rare and the trash rarely fills a single bag. A local man once told me that he missed being able to drive right down to the river, but that he now brings his 8 year-old son along, which he would not have dared to do before FOC cleaned up the place.

Dave and I talked often about the need for a long-term protection strategy, and began discussions with the West Virginia Land Trust several years ago. After careful research, they agreed to accept the site, and the land transfer was finalized this past summer.

FOC will continue to manage and improve Jenkinsburg public access, and continue their annual spring Whitewater Access campaign to maintain and repair Bull Run Rd.

In Search of Hellbenders: FOC’s first E-DNA Study of the Cheat River Watershed

FOC is excited to announce that we have recently wrapped up our first ever environmental-DNA study for Eastern Hellbender in the Cheat River Watershed. Eastern Hellbender are the largest salamanders in North America, reaching lengths of two feet, and can live up to 30 years. They are primarily found throughout the Appalachian region, including West Virginia and the Cheat River. Despite their ominous name, these gentle giants pose no threat to humans, spending most of their lives under large, flat rocks in the stream bed, feasting primarily on crayfish. Nicknamed “Snot Otters”, these salamanders are often described as slimy. However, this slime protects them against abrasions, infections, parasites, and predators.

Eastern Hellbender - photo by Chad Landress

Eastern Hellbender are considered an “Indicator Species”--because of their need for high water quality, their presence or absence can tell us about the overall health of a river ecosystem. They rarely leave the same half of a square mile during their lifetimes and essentially breathe through pores on their skin, which is why they have a wrinkly appearance with many skin folds; increased surface area on their skin allows for greater oxygen exchange. Because of these unique characteristics, pollutants in the water can have significant negative effects on Eastern Hellbender. They also play a vital role in the river ecosystem as predators and as prey to larger animals, such as river otters, water snakes, or raccoons, and have also been classified as a “Keystone Species”. Losing these individuals from a river system leaves the dynamic web of species interaction vulnerable to further degradation.

Eastern Hellbender populations are in decline across their range due to water quality impairments, sedimentation, and barriers to dispersal, such as dams. While they have been documented in the Cheat River mainstem, their current distribution throughout the watershed, including our 5 major forks, remains somewhat unknown. Due to the legacy of acid mine drainage in the Lower Cheat River, it has been thought their populations likely perished in these reaches. However, in recent years we have seen acid-intolerant species make a comeback in Cheat, leaving FOC to wonder what may be possible and what we may discover by monitoring for these species.

Because of their secretive nature, Eastern Hellbender can be difficult to find. If left undisturbed, they can spend a large portion of their lives living under the same rock in a stream or river. Flipping rocks to find hellbender destroys their habitat--imagine a giant lifted your house off its foundation and roughly placed it back, you’d be bound to have some structural issues to say the least! Hellbender choose very specific rocks that protect them from predators while still allowing them to catch prey, so by flipping rocks, you are essentially evicting this species from its home.

Garrett Richardson and volunteer Sarah Lilly sample in the Cheat Canyon

So, how does FOC monitor for this species without doing harm? Environmental-DNA (eDNA) monitoring is a newer strategy that allows scientists to pass water through a filter at a sampling location, which collects microscopic DNA from the river or stream environment. The sample is then carefully secured to prevent contamination, and sent to a laboratory for analysis. There, the sample is tested for Eastern Hellbender DNA, and reported back to the sampler. If the sample comes back positive for Eastern Hellbender DNA, it can be deduced that Eastern Hellbender are likely present at or upstream of the sampling location.

Garrett Richardson carefully folds a sample filter

Studies have shown that the DNA of individuals can be detected for up to 800 feet upstream. If the sample comes back negative, it does not necessarily mean that the species is not present in that stream system, but rather that an individual was not present in that specific reach, or more sampling is needed to make a determination.

Owen Mulkeen records data and sketches the sample site

Certain times of the year increase the likelihood of detecting Hellbender DNA, specifically, September - October, when individuals are on the move to find a mate. Stream flow also tends to be lower in early Fall, which further concentrates the amount of Hellbender DNA in the water.

FOC is thrilled to begin this new chapter in monitoring, and will use the results of the study to guide management decisions in the future. Understanding current distribution of Eastern Hellbender throughout the Cheat River mainstem and our major tributaries can aid preservation and protection efforts, as well as identify areas where restoration and sediment management are needed. In 2020, we collected 29 samples across the Cheat Canyon, the Cheat River Narrows, the Cheat River Water Trail, and iconic tributaries such as Otter Creek, Shavers Fork, Laurel Fork, Glady Fork, Dry Fork, Big Sandy Creek, and the Blackwater River. FOC plans to conduct additional e-DNA monitoring in 2021 for Eastern Hellbender in gap areas identified from this year’s study, and potentially for freshwater mussel species as well.

Want to support FOC’s efforts in aiding the Eastern Hellbender? Look for the Freefolk Brewery special release of the Allegheny Alligator-- a stout crafted to support this unique and special species. A portion of the sales from the Allegheny Alligator will go towards FOC’s e-DNA monitoring efforts in the Cheat River watershed. The brew is part of the Freefolk’s ‘Wild and Free’ series-- each release features a native WV species, discusses the habitat needs and concerns for that species, and collaborates with a local preservation or conservation organization when possible. Freefolk Brewery also supports the community by incorporating locally sourced ingredients into each brew. Find the Allegheny Alligator at the Freefolk Brewery on November 20th in Fayetteville, or distributed at Everyday's a Party (Morgantown), Rambling Root (Fairmont), Bridge 1010 (Charleston), or Stone Tower Brews (Buckhannon).

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

From 7/21 through 10/31

Narrows Navigators - Bruce & Cynthia Wiley, Judith & Gerard Lechowick

Confluence Crew - David Maribo, Robert & Dee Leggett, Nathan Harris, Grecord, Susan Gordon, Richard Anderson

Five Forks Friends - Mark Eakin, Elizabeth Clough

Good 'Ole Friends - Marion Kee, Christina Petrilli, Carol Burdick, Ruth Miskovsky, Gary Shubert, Bill Keller, Edward Hanrahan, Rich Brooks, Greg Dick, Kaitlyn Snyder, Larry & Susan Miller, Marissa Bennet, Christopher Kiehl & Ann Corey, Jay Paxton, David Atkinson, Shaina Waddell, Sean O’Malley, Todd Ensign, Harris Wright

APPALACHIAN STEWARDSHIP FOUNDATION FUNDING ANNOUNCEMENT

Madison Ball at the Sovern England treatment site

OC recently was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation (ASF) for programmatic support within our Cheat River Restoration (CRR) Program, which includes a subset of FOC’s vast project portfolio - projects that directly address ecological and water quality impairments in the Cheat River watershed - and specifically, funding for work on acid mine drainage (AMD) treatment sites that no longer have grant money available. ASF funds will pay for a year’s worth of CRR efforts, eliminating the funding gap normally filled by FOC’s unrestricted donor campaign proceeds. This critical funding could not come at a more opportune time - when FOC’s general fundraising efforts face an uncertain future as donors and our community deal with the economic hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic.

FOC’s CRR program emcompasses a myriad of projects addressing improvements within the Cheat River watershed - many of which had only partial or no dedicated funding. Through CRR, FOC maintains 18 AMD treatment sites, with construction for another 3 passive AMD treatment systems planned for Winter 2020 - Fall 2022, and conducts in-stream monitoring to measure success of restoration efforts in Big Sandy Creek, Muddy Creek, and North Fork of Greens Run. ASF funding will support critical personnel time necessary to collect water quality samples and thoroughly analyze monitoring data, implement restoration activities effectively, and manage volunteer monitoring efforts. This includes FOC’s CAPABLE program - an active citizen science monitoring program whose mission is to collect vital baseline and current data on Cheat River tributaries that are at risk for degradation due to oil and gas activity.

Garrett Richardson conducting in-stream water monitoring

Two new initiatives have been added to FOC’s CRR program: our partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to reforest riparian areas along the Cheat River mainstem as well as priority tributaries, and the future removal of the Albright Power Dam. Within the NRCS project, FOC has identified priority tributaries, mapped open riparian areas in each, and has begun to recruit private landowners to implement reforestation on their properties. FOC has a targeted goal of reforesting 45 riparian acres by Fall 2022. FOC will also soon begin initial studies to investigate the feasibility of removal of the defunct Albright Power Station Dam. The dam was built to feed the cooling towers of the now decommissioned coal-fired Albright Power Station and acts as a major barrier for aquatic species. Removing the dam will result in: Walleye being able to move upstream to the Upper Cheat River and major tributaries, the reconnection of Brook Trout populations in adjacent tributaries, improved conditions for Eastern Hellbender, and may lead to the reintroduction of freshwater mussels, which were extirpated from the Cheat River in the early 20th century.

For all of the above projects, FOC will initiate, produce, and distribute educational materials, as well as host interactive opportunities for the public to understand the importance of aquatic ecosystem health and impacts that resource extractive practices can have on said ecosystems, and learn about active restoration and monitoring projects being implemented by FOC and how to become involved, either as a volunteer, supporter, or lifelong learner.

ASF exists “to help mitigate and remedy the devastating impacts of energy development across Appalachia and advance the environmental values that will lead our energy future,” with goals of reducing greenhouse gases, restoring streams and fisheries, promoting public awareness, and creating innovative carbon-reduction research and projects. Through this new funding, FOC and ASF are mutually benefiting each other’s missions to restore rivers and their ecosystems from the impacts of legacy coal mining and acid mine drainage, as well as promote public understanding of ecosystem health and current threats.

Preston Trail Towns Partner Program

by Kelley Burd-Huss

Friends of the Cheat is excited to announce its 2021 Preston Trail Towns Partner Program. Preston Trail Towns is an innovative community economic development program funded by Friends of the Cheat’s initial $3.2 million RECREATE AML Pilot grant in 2018. As the RECREATE Project reaches new milestones, FOC and other community organizations are adding nearly 19 miles of new hiking and mountain biking trails to Preston County in the next year. Preston Trail Towns seeks to help communities, small businesses, and entrepreneurs capitalize on the recreational and tourism opportunities these new trails bring.

We are looking for Project Partners across Preston County, focusing on the areas around our first four Trail Towns: Kingwood, Tunnelton, Rowlesburg, and Albright. As a Project Partner, you will receive technical support, guidance, and energy from the Friends of the Cheat team. You will also get some costs associated with your community projects covered by this initiative.

Project Partners can be Community Groups, Town Governments, Town Parks, and Small Businesses. Just about the only limit to Partner Program funding is your imagination! The Partner Program will pay for supplies and itemized costs for community Improvement projects, public art, and outdoor recreation infrastructure in any of the four current Preston Trail Town areas: Albright, Kingwood, Rowlesburg, and Tunnelton.

Some great examples of costs that can be covered by the Partner Program include:

  • Paying web designers or graphic designers for branding and marketing upgrades for your business or organization
  • Paying for bike or boat trailers for a shuttle service
  • Designing, building and installation of signage, benches, and park/trail amenities
  • Funds to develop and engineer podcasts or Social Media on local history, wildlife, flora, etc. on the Trails
  • Funds for a bike loan program, based in the schools or the Community
  • Funds to hire artists to create murals or public art on Trails or in Town.

We are thrilled to hear your ideas for supporting our vision of vibrant, thriving Trail Town communities in Preston County. Apply to our Partner Program today! For more information, contact Kelley Burd-Huss, Community Development Coordinator, at kelley@cheat.org or 304-276-9956.

New Friends of the Cheat Documentary

Madison Ball on location at Shaver's Fork

In early September, filmmaker Robert Tinnell reached out to FOC with an exciting project proposition.

A Fairmont native, and Big Sandy watershed landowner, Tinnell has decades of film and writing credits under his name (just google him) - from graphic novels to music videos to horror movies to romantic comedies - the list is long. Tinnell’s most recent feature-length film, Feast of the Seven Fishes, adapted from his 2005 graphic novel of the same name, was based and shot in Rivesville, WV. Tinnell is also the director of the George Romero Filmmaking Program, one of the creative programs at the Douglas Education Center, just south of Pittsburgh. Students finishing their 4th semesters have the opportunity to create their own short films, a project called “The Final Product” - and that short film this fall is a 26-minute documentary about FOC.

With Tinnell as project director, the film students have shot footage all over the extensive Cheat River watershed - from Cheat Mountain to Point Marion - and at key FOC locations and treatment systems. It’s been a breeze for FOC staff to work with the film crew - safely outside at all times - and Tinnell is a natural storyteller already familiar with FOC’s mission and history.

We’d like to extend a huge thanks to Robert Tinnell for his enthusiasm, time, and expertise, and to students Hunter, Sarah, and Jared, for the hard work and long hours they’re already poured into this project. Work on the film will continue into December - with an early spring release.

West Virginia Scenic Trails Association Volunteer weekend

Volunteers near the Beech Run Trailhead - photo by Laura Finch

FOC was delighted to host a stellar group of volunteers from the West Virginia Scenic Trails Association (WVSTA) over the weekend of July 25-26. 21 volunteers from across the state met at the FOC Campground to perform trail maintenance on a portion of Section 1 of the Allegheny Trail (AT) - specifically the 10-mile hiking trail that hugs the Cheat Canyon, running from Beech Run to Jenkinsburg. FOC adopted the northernmost section of the AT in 2017, and works with WVU’s Adventure WV program to maintain and improve the trail during their summer service sessions. Due to the 2020 pandemic, Adventure WV could not operate their freshmen orientation trips, so when WVSTA suggested a safe volunteer event, FOC jumped at the opportunity.

Organized and directed by WVSTA president, Laura Finch, volunteers split into 3 groups: one group to start from Beech Run, one group to start from Jenkinsburg, and one group to traverse the entire 10 miles. All volunteers were strict in following Covid-19 guidelines, and each group brought their personal tools to trim, grade, and remove any large fallen trees or debris. WVSTA members and volunteers spend many of their summer weekends performing trail maintenance along all sections of the AT, and are highly skilled in remediating drainage issues and sustainable trail surfacing. After one weekend with these folks, the Canyon trail had a total makeover.

We’d like to sincerely thank all the volunteers who attended: Brian Hirt, Jim Meckley, Bill Fischer, Christy Barber, Vic Fickes, Laura Finch, Troy Byard, Randy Kesling, Joe Martin, Michael Downs, Greg Edwards, Joe Kelly, Jeff Byard, John Lichter, Mike Jarrells, Rick Meadows, Nichole Friend, Marissa Bennett, Les Wright, Kelly Bowyer, Chris White, Kyle Hewett, Ann Lawson, and Kaitlyn Snyder.

The Allegheny Trail, West Virginia’s longest foot trail, snakes 330 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line in Bruceton Mills south to the WV-VA border, where it ends at a junction with the Appalachian Trail. You can purchase a physical, spiral-bound guide ($30 plus $4 shipping) for the entire trail, or a full trail or section-specific digital version through WVSTA’s website at https://www.wvscenictrails.org/shop.

That's all for now. Stay safe out there, FOC friends!