How it All Began...
By Mac Thornton of Cabin John, MD and Canaan Valley, WV
Late on March 21, 1975, a very foggy, bone-chilling night, I
first drove from D.C. into West Virginia’s mountains with a canoe on the top of
my car. It was the beginning of a love
affair with the fast, tumbling rivers and remote canyons of this state. The intimate Laurel Fork of the Cheat, and
the spectacular Blackwater and Cheat Canyons became my favorites. Paddling West Virginia rivers constantly in
the following years, I noticed that the conditions in and around these rivers
were not fixed, but were changing. Unfortunately,
most of the changes were for the worse:
landowners bulldozing river beds,
increased acid mine drainage and clear cutting. I got increasingly angry about these
abuses. For me, the last straw came in
1988, when a proposal was floated to construct five dams in the upper Cheat
River watershed. Outrageous!!! Several other paddlers felt the same way.
First challenge: the
rivers of West Virginia had no voice. No
recognized group had taken responsibility for speaking out for protection and
restoration of our beloved mountain streams.
It seemed obvious that these rivers needed a dedicated, strong advocacy
group. Second challenge: there was no
way a bunch of mostly Washington paddlers could found such a group; we needed
to find and join with like-minded folks in West Virginia. At this point (spring, 1990), we were
fortunate to come in contact with Jamie Shumway, an active environmentalist in
Morgantown. Jamie immediately took the
lead in building relationships with environmental organizations and leaders in
the state. The West Virginia Rivers
Coalition was born, consisting of national, regional and in-state conservation
groups. It was the first statewide river
advocacy group east of the Rockies.
Third challenge: we had no staff and were operating with a
bank account of about $1000. But the
following year, Pope Barrow engineered a grant of $40,000 from the Outdoor
Industry Conservation Alliance (Patagonia, REI, etc.). This huge grant enabled us to hire a kid just
graduating from W.V.U. to be our Executive Director: Roger Harrison. Within
a couple of years, Roger matured into an articulate, polished advocate. Support started pouring in from individuals
and groups. We had not imagined the depth and extent of concern for these
rivers. WVRC became the second largest
statewide rivers group in the USA (after California).
We presented a proposal to the U.S. Forest Service for
Congressional designation of 13 streams under the Federal Wild and Scenic
Rivers Act. But the W.V. Division of
Natural Resources opposed the designation, fearing loss of control of their
bureaucratic prerogatives on the designated streams. Also, this was just the time when the
national property rights movement was gaining steam, bringing Wild and Scenic
designations to a virtual halt nationwide.
WVRC changed gears, to a more wholistic approach to river
conservation. We advocated a
watershed-based analysis and prioritization, and for example, hosted the
Appalachian Rivers and Watershed Conference in June, 1994, with attendees from
all over the East. Based on our example,
other statewide groups were formed, such as New York Rivers United. With the assistance of long-time environmental
advocates such as Don Garvin, we successfully inserted the interests of W.V. rivers
in many political and regulatory issues over the years.
Today’s WVRC continues to be the voice of West Virginia’s
legacy of unique and amazing streams.
The challenges continue against the powerful forces supporting fracking,
mountaintop removal, industrial chicken waste disposal, etc, etc. We must ensure the voice of the rivers
remains firm and persistent.