Nature Conservancy Celebrates Success in West Virginia by Train

  • The Cheat Mountain Salamander train stops at the top of the mountain where red spruce trees are making a comeback. Photo: Kara Holsopple

  • Jim and Marti Sinclair decided to celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary with a train trip into the West Virginia high country. Photo: Kara Holsopple

  • The Cheat Mountain Salamander's train cars date back to the early 1900s. Photo: Kara Holsopple

  • Rodney Bartgis is the state director of the Nature Conservancy in West Viginia. He passes out maps explaining the conservancy's role in preserving land in the state. Photo: Kara Holsopple

  • The High Falls of the Cheat River are a highlight of the train's scheduled stops into the Monongahela National Forest. Photo: Kara Holsopple

  • Passengers explore the abandoned mining town of Old Spruce. Photo: Kara Holsopple

  • Young red spruce trees are planted and also reproduce naturally at the old Spruce site. Red spruce restoration is a key component of the Nature Conservancy's work in West Virginia. Photo: Kara Holsopple

October 11, 2013

West Virginia’s high mountain country looks unlike anything else in Appalachia. This unique beauty and wildlife is one reason the Nature Conservancy booked a tourist train ride into mountain country celebrating their 50th year working in the state.  They also showed off their conservation successes.

Dozens of people in windbreakers are milling around as the fog lifts outside the train depot in Elkins, West Virginia. They’re waiting for the first call to board the Cheat Mountain Salamander, a vintage train which will take them on a scenic ride 64 miles into the mountains.

Some vistiors hope to get a chance to spot the train’s rare and threatened namesake, the Cheat Mountain Salamander, when the train makes a scheduled stop at the High Falls of the Cheat River. The trip begins near the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River and continues up into the Monongahela National Forest, promising glimpses of eagles and even bears.

As the crowd steps onto the train cars one by one, and settles into velvet seats, cameras are already out. Riders excitedly snap photos as the train pulls away from the station. The trees are just beginning to change their colors, and the sunlight is playing off the waters of the Shavers Fork. Oaks and other hardwoods give way to red spruce trees as the elevation increases.

Soon, an announcer takes to the intercom and begins to explain that when these train cars were in their prime, at the turn of the 20th century, logging was king here. Today, only one-tenth of the spruce trees once covering the upper range of this mountain remain.

Some groups in West Virginia are trying to reverse this trend. Their efforts have brought back some species that were once on the endangered species list, including one that the passengers may not be able to see from the train, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel.

“The one that lives in our spruce forests comes at night, comes down out of the trees down on the ground and digs the truffles up out of the ground,” says Rodney Bartgis, state director of the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. “It’s like a truffle pig—they can smell the truffle underground.”

The truffles, mushrooms growing beneath the unique red spruce needles, are the squirrels' main food source. It’s a symbiotic relationship, with the squirrels spreading the spores of the truffles in their waste, while the fungi feed the shallow roots of the red spruce in otherwise nutrient-poor soil. Bringing back the red spruce has increased the number of these squirrels to the point where they are no longer on the endangered species list. 

As Bartgis mixes and mingles with the passengers, he says the work his group has done, helping conserve the 60,000 acres of land the train will ride through today, is even more important than saving forest critters.

“Our forests are the lungs of eastern North America, our streams are the heads to the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River,” Bartgis says.

The spruce provide shade for mountain streams, allowing Brook trout to thrive again. And as the climate warms, the red spruce may play another role. They provide what Bartgis calls small climate feedbacks—retaining snow and moisture under their boughs—which could help mitigate the impact of climate change on this delicate ecosystem.

At the top of the mountain, passengers get off the train at an abandoned logging and mining town, aptly named Spruce. There’s not much here anymore, just a field of historic markers and wildflowers—and of course, red spruce trees. Bartgis points to one about as tall as a one story home:

“The town was abandoned by 1960, so that red spruce is probably no more than 40 or 50 years old,” explains Bartgis. “The trees originally were 100 to 120 feet tall.  It was a magnificent thing to have seen. The old photographs are impressive, but when you walk through some of the few remaining old stands, it’s really awe inspiring.”

He says it's going to take a lot more of these trees, and older ones than many here at the site, to capture carbon and combat climate change.

Bartgis hopes people will leave the tour with the idea that forest regeneration doesn’t just happen. It takes planning, effort and commitment on the part of conservancy groups like his, and others who want to preserve the state’s natural resources.