ALUM CREEK — West Virginia has a brand-new place where people can get outdoors and enjoy nature.
The Forks of Coal Natural Area opened its gates to the public on June 2. Alum Creek businessman Jack Workman donated the 102-acre tract to the state Division of Natural Resources on the condition that the land be used to educate young people about wildlife and nature.
DNR officials have big plans for the property. They envision a sizable visitor center, a nature-viewing tower, an outdoor nature classroom, interpretive exhibits that highlight the area’s natural history, a live wildlife exhibit, an extensive network of hiking trails and offices for the DNR’s district wildlife and law enforcement staffs.
Most of that development will take place when money can be raised to put it in place. Right now a gravel parking lot, some trailhead signs and a few interpretive signs are the only visible evidence of the DNR’s fledgling effort.
“We have a big dream of a wildlife education center in honor of Mr. Workman’s late wife Claudia,” DNR director Bob Fala said during a recent visit. “We want to do something that will really knock people’s socks off. We want to involve foundations, donors and conservation organizations and make this facility as good as it possibly can be.”
Brad Leslie, chief engineer for the DNR’s Parks Section, said tentative plans and artist’s conceptions of the wildlife center and observation tower have already been drawn up.
“We envision about a 7,000-square-foot building with eight or nine exhibits that we rotate through to keep things fresh,” he said. “We want the building to be constructed out of natural materials so it will fit into the landscape, and we want it to have a large classroom for nature education.
“We [also] plan to put an outdoor classroom under an existing [open-sided] pavilion, with another teaching area near the pavilion but outside of it. It will be a great place to get people out to see some wildlife.”
DNR workers have already seen deer, turkeys and black bears roaming the property. Small animals such as coyotes, squirrels and chipmunks are also present. Ducks and other waterfowl show up from time to time on the Big Coal and Little Coal rivers, and songbirds abound in the trees.
In addition to the “wild wildlife,” Workman requested that the center be home to exhibits of captive wildlife similar to those at the West Virginia Wildlife Center at French Creek. DNR officials won’t say when such exhibits might be put in place, but say they are being planned.
Paul Johansen, chief of the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Section, said he’d like for the area to “serve as a gateway to ‘Elk Country West Virginia.’”
The agency plans to begin stocking elk into Logan and McDowell counties in late 2016 or early 2017, with the idea that those initial herds will eventually expand into Mingo and Wyoming counties as well as parts of Boone, Lincoln and Wayne.
“Once we have a population established, this would be a great stop-off for people headed down that way to take part in elk-viewing tours,” Johansen said. “Folks could see at a glance what our agency is trying to accomplish.”
Until the education center and wildlife exhibits get built, Forks of Coal’s trail network will likely be the area’s biggest attraction. Three separate trail loops existed on the property even before the DNR took possession. Earlier this spring a local Boy Scout troop came in and smoothed out some rough areas. DNR Director Fala said the existing 3-mile network would be further developed and expanded, but he expects hikers and nature enthusiasts to make good use of the area’s trails well before then.
“One of our folks likened it to [New York’s] Central Park,” Fala said. “It’s natural area that’s close to lots of shopping [at nearby Southridge Centre]. People can be in a city environment and, in just a few minutes, drive out here and get into some shade.”
Wildlife chief Johansen said the property’s location, just off Appalachian Highway Corridor G, gives the DNR “an opportunity to reach out to our municipalities.”
“I think it will draw a lot of visitors from Charleston; in fact, I believe it will draw people from as far away as Huntington,” he added.
With the coal industry in decline, water quality has improved in both rivers that flank the tract. Fishing for bass, channel catfish, muskellunge and other game fish has improved significantly. DNR officials plan to expand the area’s trail network so anglers can walk to the river and fish.
The agency also plans to make use of two large industrial buildings on the property. One is being renovated to house the DNR’s District V wildlife and law enforcement staffs. The other will be used to store boats, tractors and other equipment used on the district.
The buildings will solve a logistics problem that had plagued the agency for decades. Most of the wildlife staff had been headquartered at the McClintic Wildlife Management Area near Point Pleasant, while the law enforcement staff had been split between offices at Nitro and at Chief Logan State Park near Henlawson.
“We needed a centrally located district office, and now we have one,” Fala said. “For too long, our people have been scattered all over the place in rented offices and storage places. Now we can bring them together in a single location that’s easy for the public to find and convenient for the public to reach.”
The emphasis for the area, however, will center on educating young people about nature and giving the public a place to come and “get away from it all” just a few miles away from the state’s largest city.
“We’re delighted to have the property,” Fala said. “We think people are really going to enjoy it.”