CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A 555-acre stretch of private land in high country of Randolph County connecting the Laurel Fork Wilderness to the Seneca Creek Backcountry has been protected through a permanent conservation easement.The easement, worked out between Gandy Ranch owner Steve Callan, The Nature Conservancy and several other conservation partners, will provide a habitat connection between some of the wildest lands in the Monongahela National Forest."This project will protect and restore a 'land bridge' that is two to three miles wide, connecting the high country habitats of the Laurel Fork Wilderness and the Seneca Creek Backcountry," said Keith Fisher, director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. "The property we're protecting runs along about 1.25 miles of Gandy Creek and reaches all the way to the 4,636-foot summit of Pharis Knob, one of our state's highest peaks."A comprehensive land restoration effort will take place on the easement, involving native red spruce plantings along the tributaries of Glady Creek, providing habitat for the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, the Cheat Mountain salamander, and other uncommon species.Invasive species will be eliminated from the easement, and along Gandy Creek, banks will be stabilized, cattle will be fenced out, and fish habitat structures will be installed to benefit native brook trout."Through the foresight of this landowner and the support of our partners, we're protecting an important freshwater resource and the home fishing waters for future generations of West Virginians," Fisher said.Money to protect and restore the land and pay for the restoration work comes from a grant from American Rivers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as part of an initiative to protect streams in the Potomac Highlands. Also contributing were the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the West Virginia DEP's In-lieu Fee Mitigation Program.A "bargain sale and donation" by Callan also helped make the conservation easement possible, according to a release from The Nature Conservancy.