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Mon Forest bike trail system takes shape on former strip mine

HUTTONSVILLE — A new mountain bike trail system developed on a former strip mine in the Monongahela National Forest is now part of a single-track trail network rated among the world’s best by the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

The Mower Basin Trails System, which officially opened June 5, is composed of four linked loop trails, each ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 miles, making possible rides of varying lengths and terrain types. The trails carry riders through open meadows with big-sky vistas into dense, shady stands of red spruce and along former mine benches overlooking newly created wetlands below and the ancient ridgelines of the Allegheny highlands in the distance.

The Mower Basin Trails are the newest addition to the Snowshoe Highlands Ride Center. It’s West Virginia’s first, and so far, only, mountain bike destination recognized by the International Mountain Bicycling Association for its extensive system of well-designed single-track trails suitable for all skill levels, among other criteria.

“These are mostly moderate to easy rolling contour trails with frequent grade reversals,” and no long, steep uphill or downhill sections, said Jon Wheeler, recreation specialist with the Greenbrier Ranger District.

Atop this section of Cheat Mountain, where Mower Basin’s trailhead parking area is perched at an elevation of 4,300 feet and most trails take riders to even higher ground, the horizon stretches out to dimensions not often seen in West Virginia.

”With all this open sky, people have started to call this place ‘Mine-tana,’” said Jack Tribble, district ranger for the Greenbrier Ranger District, headquartered in Bartow. It was Tribble who put plans in motion to create the new trail system as part of a decade-long restoration project for the area in which it is located.

At the trailhead, one kiosk shelters a large map of the trail system with brief descriptions of the rides. Another sign lets riders know what’s available in the Mon Forest’s 10 gateway communities — Elkins, Parsons, Davis, Thomas, Cowen, Marlinton, Franklin, Petersburg, Richwood and White Sulphur Springs. A second kiosk contains a bike repair station where an assortment of tools used to make common repairs and adjustments dangles from cables secured to a post.

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A map and descriptions of trails in the new Mower Basin Trails System can be found in one trailhead kiosk, while another shelters a mountain bike repair station.

After a short hike up Hawks Ridge Loop, the longest trail in the system, Tribble stopped on a section of former mine bench where it is possible to gaze far into the surrounding Mon Forest high country, the source of numerous rivers.

”There’s the Elk, that’s the Tygart and this is Shavers Fork,” he said, pointing out a series of notches between steep mountain ridges containing the streams. No buildings, farms, power lines or industrial smoke could be seen.

The 2,000-acre former contour mine on which the Mower Basin Trails are located is part of the 40,000-acre Mower Tract, a block of heavily timbered and mined land astride the Randolph-Pocahontas line formerly owned by the Mower Lumber Co. and acquired in 1987 by the national forest, with help from the Trust for Public Lands.

A mature red spruce forest once dominated the tract’s highest terrain, while a mix of red spruce and northern hardwoods prevailed at lower elevations. Industrial-scale logging in the late 1800s and early 1900s decimated all but a few scattered stands of the evergreen, and wildfires fueled by tree limbs and tops left behind at clearcut sites incinerated the seed-bearing cones needed for the red spruce to regenerate.

”By 1919 it was all cut, and decades later, it was cut for a second time,” followed by surface mining for coal, Tribble said.

The land under the Mower Basin Trails was mined in the 1970s, when post-mining erosion control involved compacting the soil used to restore the mined land to its approximate original contour and planting in it the grasses, legumes and non-native trees that could survive.

Former mine sites in the Mower Tract became a combination of non-native conifer plantations and pastures. The heavily compacted soil and thick grass cover made it impossible for native plant species to re-colonize the sites.

After being named district ranger in 2001, Tribble faced challenges, including planning the rehabilitation of the Mower Tract. He began with an outline involving a new version of the old three Rs: Roads, restoration and recreation.

”The roads in the Mower Tract were so bad people either couldn’t or wouldn’t come up here,” he said. So major improvements to Forest Road 227 and other neglected roads in the area got underway.

Next came work to restore the natural ecology of the area. After an experimental Forest Service planting of red spruce seedlings on 75 acres of compacted mine lands soil produced dismal survival rates, the Mon Forest teamed up with the Lexington, Kentucky, nonprofit Green Forests Work to try a new solution.

Green Forests Work’s approach was to doze off non-native trees, and then cut a crosshatch pattern of deep furrows across the compacted ground using dozers pulling ripper shanks. In 2011, during its first year of work on the Mower Tract, 90 acres of compacted mine land was ripped and nearly 23,000 trees – most of them red spruce — were planted on the site.

The work initially produced a landscape of dozer-toppled trees and severely disturbed soil. “It just didn’t seem right for reforestation to look so ugly,” Tribble said. But after determining that seedling survival rates ranging from 75% to 90% were produced, he got used to the process.

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Greenbrier District Ranger Jack Tribble from the Forest Service walks through a remnant stand of red spruce along the Hawks Ridge Loop trail.

“Ugly works,” he said.

The work has continued each year since 2011, restoring more than 1,100 acres of former surface mine lands in which nearly 563,000 native trees and shrubs were planted as of this year. While red spruce accounted for the largest percentage of trees taking root in the restored land, tens of thousands of aspen, black cherry and speckled alder were also planted, along with more than 3,500 American chestnut seedlings.

Tribble estimated that about three more years of similar restoration work remains on the Mower Tract. When that’s complete, he will be able to turn more attention to recreational developments on the land.

Already, 20 dispersed campsites have been created and are in use in the vicinity of the bike trail system on grassy, compacted mine lands left in place at sites with commanding views. There, campers can set up tents or park camping trailers on flat, dry ground, build campfires and take in night skies free of light pollution.

Funding for a second phase of stacked loop trails at Mower Basin has been approved, and the work likely will be completed during the next two years, Tribble said. A plan is also in the works for an eight-mile connector trail linking the Mower Basin trails to Snowshoe Mountain’s trail system.

Most of the work on the Mower Basin Trail System was completed late last fall through a collaborative effort by the Mon Forest staff, personnel from the American Conservation Experience, WVU, the Pocahontas Trails Chapter of the International Mountain Bicycling Association and a grant from the West Virginia Recreational Trails Program.

“It’s been enjoyable to see this project come together and see people enjoying it,” Tribble said.

Elkins area volunteer Bruce Wohleber “put some of his mountain biking passion into trailblazing this system,” said Wheeler. “He donated at least 500 hours of his time to this project. He’s a great equipment operator, and he rides the trails on a regular basis.”

The Mower Basin Trails System is one of four single-track trail hubs included in the Snowshoe Highlands Ride Center, now one of 16 ride centers in the U.S., Canada, Italy and New Zealand rated Silver-Level by the mountain bicycling association. Other centers in the same category include Colorado’s Vail Valley and Steamboat Springs and Sun Valley in Idaho.

To reach the Mower Basin Trails from Elkins, follow U.S. 250 south to Huttonsville, then follow the highway for another nine miles to its junction with Forest Road 227. Turn right on the gravel Forest Service road and follow it for about six miles to a Mower Basin Trails sign, where a left turn onto Forest Road 227C and a drive of about 0.75 miles leads to the trailhead.

Charleston Town Center faces long way back home

If anyone is dreaming of the day when the Charleston Town Center returns to full retail occupancy, then wake up, says an official with the company that bought the troubled enterprise in May.

“We’re trying to keep the tenants we have and then create the right atmosphere,” said John Mulherin, vice president of government relations for The Hull Property Group, based in Augusta, Georgia. “We’re not going to go back to 1984 when this place was full of 100% retail.”

Mulherin stressed that the group isn’t aggressively targeting large, national retailers, because they are in contraction, not expansion, mode; that Hull will investigate loft apartments as a way to fill space; and that small, “regional” boutique stores might be a partial way out of the mire.

That blueprint sounds somewhat similar to what is already taking place in town. Loft apartment projects are underway, or planned, including the recently announced One Commerce Square-Huntington Bank condominium project at the corner of Lee and Hale streets. As for boutique stores, that strategy has been implemented in the Elk City area of the West Side and also would appear to be the only solution to a possible revival in downtown retail.

Mulherin also mentioned, among possible building uses, medical facilities and hotels. Some scuttlebutt has surfaced about a hotel going into the old Sears anchor location, but Mulherin did not commit to his company helping one to materialize. No one category of use will solve the problem, he said.

“You’ve got a lot of large, empty boxes that used to be department stores,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of boutiques to fill that up.”

Commercial property developer Howard Swint has advocated the development of an aquatic center to help fill mall space. Mulherin seemed to throw cold water on that idea.

“It’s not one of our core businesses. We don’t know anything about the operation of an aquatic center. That’s not to say we wouldn’t entertain it if we understood it better. If Mr. Swint wanted to contact me or us I’d be glad to have the conversation, but my initial blush is that is not one our core businesses and we wouldn’t know how to monetize that. But we’d be glad to speak to Mr. Swint or anyone for that matter about this extra space we’re trying to fill up.”

The needle doesn’t seem to have moved much on exact plans for the mall, if Mulherin’s remarks are any indication. Then again, Hull only bought the property in May, for $7.5 million. The company owns 32 other shopping malls across 16 states.

Hull is open to helping prospective mall tenants build out their spaces and buy startup inventory, Mulherin said. These aren’t gifts.

“We’re not in Charleston, West Virginia, on a philanthropic mission,” Mulherin said. “We’re there to feather our own economic nest. There’s a way to way to structure these things. But we’re not angel investors. We’ll get paid off and at the same time the owner of the business will see a payoff.”

Hull officials will be in town this week to investigate “aesthetic renovations,” Mulherin said, including blocking off entrances to closed stores with sheetrock, then installing murals over the repairs. As Hull has done at other holdings, the walled-over spaces will also feature wainscoting and crown molding. New lighting throughout the mall, designed to be more consistent, is also in the works, as is carpet replacement.

As for the murals, Mulherin said, his company will seek community input, looking for anything “inspirational and aspirational.” Historical information about the area, quotes, something indicating “why it’s cool to live in Charleston” would all be candidates, he said.

Mulherin spoke about the mall’s future as The Basketball Tournament prepared to tip off at the Charleston Convention Center and Coliseum, just across Clendenin Street from the mall. The event, featuring former college basketball players from West Virginia and Marshall universities and schools across the country, promises to bring the mall foot traffic.

“One singular event is not going to bring back this mall,” Mulherin said. “This mall has been struggling for a while. It’s going to take a while to redirect the ship. But, sure, to the extent that it creates foot traffic for people who may not have come to the mall, it’s great.”

Mulherin repeated what sounded like a mantra — “stabilize, transform and reposition.” Stabilization occurs with basic aesthetic improvements and making sure more tenants don’t leave, he said. Transformation is growth and improvement, while repositioning occurs once the revamped facility is fully realized. Then it can be integrated, hopefully, into what retail framework the city has left.

“No one wants this mall to fail,” Mulherin said, stressing that Hull never has sold any of its 32 previous properties. “The mall is the biggest gorilla on the block. A failure of that rise and magnitude is hard to hide. It’s in all of our best interests that it succeeds. We’re not solely concerned about small, boutique districts, the retail corridor [Southridge] or the downtown shopping district. No property works as an island. It works in conjunction with others.”

The only aspect of Charleston retail that draws large-volume business is along Corridor G south of town. By virtue of its location, it draws plenty of its shoppers not only from Kanawha but southern counties whose residents have seen their commute times slashed by the four-lane highway. Mulherin did not sound overly concerned about its impact.

“Southridge is appropriate for Costco, but Costco is not appropriate for downtown,” Mulherin said.

If things don’t appear particularly promising right now, hold onto your hats and wait, Mulherin said.

“We’re a privately-owned company. We have the timeline and the ability to work this process in our favor. This is not going to turn around overnight. It took a long time to get where it is and it’ll take a long time to get out of it.”

Federal infrastructure packages projected to save lives, offer new economic life in West Virginia

Sean O’Leary was ready to explain the path toward economic renewal he had mapped out for a West Virginia coal community.

He didn’t get the chance.

The Wheeling native and senior researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute, a nonprofit think tank, had in front of him his 33-page testimony and 14 exhibits filed on behalf of three clean energy advocate groups.

O’Leary had modeled a better economic future for Marshall County based on the revitalization of a community nearly 3,000 miles away. He cited a plant owner-funded $55 million economic transition plan for Centralia, Washington, finalized in 2011 to help that community deal with the closures of a coal mine and plant.

The stakes were high for Marshall County.

It was the second day of the commission’s evidentiary hearing in part on whether to approve federally required environmental compliance upgrades to keep the Mitchell coal-fired generating facility in Marshall County past 2028.

Some past witnesses had spent an hour or more defending their testimonies on cross-examination. O’Leary awaited questions from the commission and an army of attorneys in the commission hearing room in Charleston representing utilities, regulators and some of the state’s most prominent industry and ratepayer advocacy groups, from the Coal Association to the state Consumer Advocate Division charged with representing residential ratepayers.

O’Leary’s hearing testimony lasted three minutes. He was the only witness who faced neither cross examination nor questions from commissioners.

“It’s very hard to get people to pay attention to it,” O’Leary said of economic transition planning, “despite the fact that, as evidenced by what’s happening at Mitchell and elsewhere, the need is absolutely acute.”

Momentum toward federal infrastructure spending could change that.

“There’s at least a potential that not only we have a model for how to do really effective economic transition and development, but there may soon be money coming available to actually implement that model,” O’Leary said.

His direct testimony filed with the commission in May noted that a plan to help Marshall County recover from losing the Mitchell plant could include federal money. The plant employed 214 people at combined pay of $26.8 million in 2020.

Advocates for economic diversification and clean energy in West Virginia largely have embraced the twin infrastructure spending proposals picking up steam in the U.S. Senate.

“We may be in a moment where there’s this fortuitous coincidence that a lot of funding may become available,” O’Leary said.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chaired by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Wednesday advanced a roughly $100 billion energy infrastructure bill that Manchin’s office said will provide the legislative text for key portions of a bipartisan Senate infrastructure package.

“It would be one of the biggest investments in coal country in decades, potentially ever,” said Joey James, principal and researcher at Downstream Strategies, a Morgantown environmental consulting firm.

Clean energy advocates also are excited by Senate Democrats’ rollout Tuesday of a $3.5 trillion spending package serving as an entry point for planned legislation to address climate change and expand Medicare.

“There is so much opportunity in that $3.5 trillion proposal,” Chelsea Barnes, legislative director for Appalachian Voices, said during an online press conference. “Obviously we don’t know the details and would love to know more, but I think that even a portion of that going to central Appalachian communities, coal-impacted communities across the country, would just be a game-changer for the local economies.”

Manchin, though, told CNN last week that he was “very, very disturbed” by provisions he said would eliminate fossil fuel use.

A Manchin spokeswoman said Friday the senator is concerned by “proposals that ignore the role fossil fuels are projected to play around the world for the foreseeable future.” Manchin wants to develop technologies using all the country’s resources to address global climate change “in a realistic manner,” given the International Energy Agency’s projection of global emissions growing in emerging and developing countries in decades to come.

Manchin will be critical to passage of any Senate Democratic reconciliation package with climate change provisions.

A coal brokerage founder who long has stuck to a mantra of “innovation, not elimination” in promoting both renewable and fossil fuel energy development, Manchin will be the center of attention as proponents of climate-conscious proposals expected to be included in the plan urge him to get on board with fellow Democrats.

“What I hope Sen. Manchin will consider is even in this next wave of negotiations around investments that will likely deal with supporting transition to clean energy, where is West Virginia and this region in that?” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said. “What can he do with his influence to make sure that West Virginia gets as much support as possible in making that transition?”

A clean energy standard

An expected centerpiece of Senate Democrats’ budget agreement is a clean energy standard, a technology-neutral plan anticipated to mandate 80% carbon-free electricity by 2030.

An analysis released by environmental scientists and public health experts Monday found a clean energy standard would prevent more premature deaths per 100,000 people in West Virginia than in any other state except Kentucky.

A standard that requires an 80% carbon-free power sector by 2030 would avoid 10.5 premature deaths per 100,000 people in West Virginia in 2030 and 14 per 100,000 people in 2050, according to researchers from Syracuse University, the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the environmental research nonprofit Resources for the Future.

The researchers estimated climate benefits of $637 billion from a clean energy standard far outweighing policy costs of $342 billion as well as 317,500 lives saved from 2020 to 2050 with $1.13 trillion in cumulative health benefits due to cleaner air.

American Electric Power, the Columbus, Ohio-based parent company of Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power, signaled cautious support for a clean energy standard conditioned on not moving away from fossil fuel sources too quickly.

“Any standard should provide flexibility, including opportunities to utilize existing dispatchable electric generation units that are needed to provide system reliability,” American Electric Power spokesman Scott Blake said in an email, adding that those include coal and natural gas units. “Any effort to significantly increase the amount of clean energy resources will require research and development of new generation and energy storage technologies to achieve these goals safely, reliably and economically.”

American Electric Power recently announced plans to add nearly 16,600 megawatts of new renewables in its regulated states by 2030, which would grow its renewable generation portfolio to about 50% of total capacity.

The company in February announced a goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 with an interim target of cutting emissions 80% from 2000 levels by 2030.

In the last decade, American Electric Power has retired or sold nearly 13,500 megawatts of coal-fueled generation and anticipates reducing coal capacity by an additional 5,600 megawatts by 2030.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission pushed the Mitchell plant toward a potential closure Thursday by rejecting Kentucky Power’s request for a certificate to implement and recover costs for federally required environmental upgrades to keep the facility operational through 2040.

Instead, the commission approved another plan that Kentucky Power, an American Electric Power subsidiary, had modeled but deemed less desirable: completing only enough environmental upgrades to keep the plant federally compliant and operating through 2028.

“Technology development will be key to determining how quickly we can achieve the clean energy standards without compromising the reliability of service that our customers expect and our economy needs to continue to grow,” Blake said.

FirstEnergy spokesman Will Boye declined to comment on the prospect of a clean energy standard, citing limited details about the proposal.

FirstEnergy last year pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and set an interim goal for a 30% reduction in greenhouse gases within the company’s direct operational control by 2030. FirstEnergy will seek approval this year to construct a solar generation source of at least 50 megawatts in West Virginia, according to Boye.

Carbon capture scrutiny

American Electric Power has consistently observed that technology for capturing and storing carbon – a key plank of Manchin’s “innovation, not elimination” platform – has a long way to go to be commercially feasible.

In a company climate impact analysis released in March, American Electric Power said its experience with carbon capture, use and storage showed “the high cost and inefficiency” of the technology that takes carbon dioxide emissions from sources such as coal-fired power plants and reuses the carbon dioxide to create products or store it permanently underground so it will not enter the atmosphere.

A carbon capture and storage facility at the company’s Mountaineer coal-fired plant in Mason County transported and geologically stored carbon emissions for the first time in 2009, but at a cost of more than $5,000 per kilowatt without government subsidies.

“For [carbon capture, use and storage] to be a viable option for the future, public policies will have to change or financial incentives will have to be offered,” the company said in its March climate impact analysis.

Manchin’s Energy Infrastructure Act makes carbon capture funding a top priority. The bill approves more than $12 billion for carbon capture technologies, including direct air capture and demonstration projects on coal, natural gas and industrial plants.

The bill would fill an essential infrastructure gap by allowing emitters to access carbon storage regardless of location and addressing an inequitable distribution of geologic storage resources, said Lee Beck, international director of carbon capture for Clean Air Task Force, an environmental policy group.

But some environmentalists frown at the bill’s heavy investment in carbon capture.

“Instead of funding non-polluting alternatives, it throws public money at expensive, unproven technologies that will allow the fossil fuel industry to continue poisoning frontline communities and trashing the planet,” Basav Sen, co-chairman of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, said in a statement.

O’Leary is concerned the bill makes relatively little investment in renewable energy and invests too much in carbon capture and storage technology.

“A lot of people are pinning hopes on the notion that [carbon capture and storage] will help natural gas and especially coal continue in the electric generating business, which is exceedingly unlikely,” O’Leary said, citing the declining cost-competitiveness of coal as an electricity source. “But it’s an area in which we could squander a lot of money trying to make the impossible happen.”

Abandoned mine land impact

Conservationists have hailed the Energy Infrastructure Act’s authorization of $11.2 billion for the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund.

Downstream Strategies released an analysis Thursday estimating the bill would result in 1,730 jobs that continue for 15 years, noting that new reclamation jobs and related economic activities will be focused in areas with large numbers of abandoned mine lands and high levels of unemployment.

“It cannot be understated how impactful this $11.2 billion investment would be for struggling coal-impacted communities and workers across the country,” Barnes said.

“What has been keeping me awake at night for some time is how are we going to address all of these environmental liabilities that West Virginia holds in terms of mining impacts over a long period of time? How will that be paid for and who will step forward with the commitment to see that happen?” Rosser said. “Yesterday felt like a big breakthrough.”

But Manchin’s energy infrastructure package has drawn criticism for dropping policies aimed at cleaning up abandoned mines.

The proposal would extend fees levied on coal companies that fund the reclamation program for abandoned mine lands, which is set to expire at the end of September. But the measure would lower those fees by 20% from 28 to 22.4 cents for surface-mined coal and from 12 to 9.6 cents for coal mined underground.

“It’s hard to call something climate legislation when it hands money directly to coal corporations,” Sarah Lutz, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.

The bill lowers the extension of Abandoned Mine Land fees from 15 to 13 years as proposed in a standalone fee reauthorization bill announced by Manchin and four other Democratic senators in April.

Barnes called on Congress to amend the Abandoned Mine Land proposal to ensure local labor is used in cleanup projects and a separate pool of funding is provided for emergency reclamation to facilitate funding for sites that pose the most serious health and safety risks.

‘If the money happens’

Under the Energy Infrastructure Act, West Virginia would be eligible for some $16 million from a new revolving loan fund for states to encourage energy efficiency upgrades and about $47 million in funding for weatherization, according to Manchin’s office.

The bill also allocates $500 million for demonstrating the viability of clean energy projects on current and former mine land while also authorizing grants for manufacturers to locate in coal communities.

“There is plenty of work still to do to enact strong climate policies in this Congress, but this is a vital piece of the puzzle,” Lindsey Baxter Griffith, Clean Air Task Force director of federal policy, said in a statement.

Just as vital will be the puzzle pieces that state and local leaders fill in.

West Virginia lawmakers have doubled down on coal-fired generation, becoming the first state to repeal its renewable portfolio standard in 2012 and approving a $12.5 million tax break to extend the lifespan of the Pleasants Power Station for three years in 2019.

In 2019, coal-fired electric power plants accounted for 91% of West Virginia’s electricity net generation compared to 23% nationwide, according to the Energy Information Administration.

“It’s just obviously the question of, will the money happen, and then if the money happens, will we use it wisely?” O’Leary said. “We have a long history of not using money wisely.”

O’Leary testified to the Public Service Commission that job growth in Centralia, Washington, shot past pre-recession levels before the pandemic while stagnating in Marshall, Ohio and Wetzel counties. Centralia successfully used economic transition funding earmarked for clean energy technologies, worker retraining and residential energy efficiency measures for low and moderate-income residents.

Those advocating for massive federal investment in West Virginia with similar targets view it as the most viable shot at economic stability as the state stares down a future pointing toward more coal plant and mine closures after generations of helping to power the nation.

“What I’m seeing and hearing is an acknowledgment from the president to congressional leadership that coal country deserves reinvestment,” Rosser said. “Not only does it need it, it deserves it.”