Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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November 3, 2013

Nature Conservancy celebrates 50 years in W.Va.

MORGANTOWN (AP) — Pretty good deal when you can save the world at $5 an acre.

At least a prehistoric parcel of it.

That’s what WVU ecology professor Charlie Baer and a group of his colleagues did in 1960 when they purchased a 259-acre parcel of Cranesville Swamp, a Preston County wetland formed 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.

The above price was the going rate for Preston County property. The idea was to turn the purchase into an outdoor classroom, which they did.

Three years later, in 1963, that same group, plus other kindred spirits, got together and formed a West Virginia chapter of the Nature Conservancy, a watchdog group that buys, then maintains, other properties across the world to preserve ecosystems and geological integrity.

That’s why the goateed Baer, now 94, was settled back in his wheelchair enjoying the proceedings Oct. 25 at the Waterfront Place Hotel.

The conservancy chapter celebrated its 50th anniversary in the Mountain State, and it did so by honoring Baer and a group of others including the late West Virginia lawmaker, Sen. Robert Byrd, as “conservation heroes” for the evening.

Conservancy members and other environmental advocates came out to fill the lobby of the hotel that sits along the banks of the Monongahela River.

Before the river, though, rests a well-used trail used for walking, biking and running that formerly contained railroad tracks.

There’s no reason, said Rodney Bartgis, an environmental scientist who serves as director of the West Virginia chapter, why such commerce and conservation can’t coexist.

Especially in West Virginia, he said, where coal was once king and drilling is making a run because of the Marcellus shale exploration.

Since that first 259-acre purchase, the conservancy has acquired about 120,000 acres in West Virginia, from stretches of the New River Gorge to the Dolly Sods Wilderness area.

“It’s iconic land,” he said.

The new challenge for the conservancy, he said, comes from buying properties in the middle of an energy exploration boom. One family might own the land, he said, while another entity owns the mineral rights.

In the case of Marcellus shale drilling, where natural gas must be extracted from rock for mations thousands of feet below the surface, Bartgis — like everyone else — can only wait and see what the ultimate impact on the ecology will be.

“We ‘re a science-based group,” he said, “and we have to wait for the science to catch up.”

The conservancy is successful, though, he said, because it runs on collaboration.

“We don’t confront people,” he said, “so they don’t run away from us.”

Baer, as he surveyed the lay of the land during the evening at Waterfront Place Hotel, said he knew the chapter would still be around 50 years down the line from its first days in 1963.

“I wasn’t sure I’d be,” he said, chuckling.

Jim Bissett writes for The Dominion Post in Morgantown.

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