Two sites in Canaan Valley have been designated West Virginia Natural Areas as part of a new Division of Natural Resources initiative designed to provide added protection for, and increased public awareness of, rare plant and animal species found on state-managed lands.
A 2,200-acre tract of rare conifer swamps near the Blackwater River’s headwaters, and a 200-acre parcel of red spruce forest and open glades near the 4,360-foot summit of Bald Knob, are the first of what may eventually be more than a dozen sites in the West Virginia Natural Areas program. Both sites are located within Canaan Valley Resort State Park.
“The two areas are home to 43 rare plants and 12 rare invertebrate species,” said Scott Warner, the DNR’s assistant chief of wildlife diversity. The Bald Knob site also supports a population of Cheat Mountain salamanders, listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, and known to exist only in West Virginia’s northeastern highlands.
Many of the plants found in the new Canaan Valley Wetlands Natural Area are more commonly found in more northerly latitudes. Of 173 species of vascular plants identified there in a 2002 botanical survey, 38 were found at or near their southernmost-known range.
While the rare plants and animals at the two sites were already afforded a degree of protection by virtue of living within a state park, the West Virginia Natural Area designation requires park managers to give them extra consideration when planning new roads, trails or utility corridors.
“It also helps our land managers protect the land from being impacted by developments from outside the parks, like new highways, pipelines or other utilities,” Warner said. By designating areas with the highest concentrations of rare plant and animal species, highway and utility planners can avoid regulatory issues by avoiding the sites, while park managers are on firmer footing in seeking mitigation for construction impacts.
With more federal funding now available, the designation “allows us to be more competitive” in applying for conservation, education or research grants, Warner said.
New trail and road signs, and kiosks sheltering educational displays, are likely to appear at sites selected as West Virginia Natural Areas, along with habitat-protecting enhancements like boardwalks.
“I think the natural areas will appeal to certain recreationists who like to see and learn about wildlife and plants that are rare or unique to West Virginia,” Warner said.
Sites within five other state parks are now under consideration for inclusion in the program, and areas within state wildlife management areas may be added later, Warner said.
A West Virginia Natural Area designation will not cause any changes to existing hunting or fishing regulations at parks or wildlife management areas encompassing the sites, Warner said.
Plans to add DNR-managed parcels containing rare plants, animals and the habitat to support them are taking shape for Twin Falls, Cathedral, Carnifex Ferry Battlefield and Holly River state parks.
“They are expected to be ready for the director’s signature by the first of the year,” Warner said.