High in the Yew Mountains of the Monongahela National Forest lies a tightly-packaged complex of West Virginia’s most iconic and ecologically significant features. The Birthplace of Rivers is home to some of West Virginia’s most dramatic vistas, tallest waterfalls, cleanest waterways, and a series of sphagnum bogs forgotten by time. The most stunning feature of the Birthplace of Rivers, though, its sheer wildness. The area stands as one of the largest expanses of contiguous wild forest in the Eastern United States. At its core is the Cranberry Wilderness, the largest federally-designated wilderness area in the east. The Cranberry features wild rivers, dense forests of red spruce and rugged valleys that glisten with trout streams and provide habitat for black bears and other native creatures.
This rare and incredibly diverse landscape provides a haven for rare species and has been designated by the scientific community as an important stronghold against climate change. The wild, largely roadless terrain serves as an important corridor to link populations of animals from the Southern to mid-Appalachian region. Six regionally-important rivers are spawned in the potential monument boundaries, ensuring water quality for many communities located downstream.
Some of the Mountain State’s most primitive backcountry experiences are found in Turkey Mountain, where there are no official trails, or in the Tea Creek Backcountry, where mountain bikers frequent some of the best trails in the Mid-Atlantic. Some of the potential monument’s most spectacular features are also some of the most accessible in the Monongahela National Forest. Cranberry Glades, a unique series of tundra-like bogs, is accessible via a half-mile boardwalk, from which many rare plant species and migratory birds can be seen up close in these sensitive wetlands. Close to the Glades is the site of the former Mill Point Federal Prison, where moonshiners found themselves during prohibition, and famed conscientious objectors were imprisoned until the 1950s.
The iconic Falls of Hills Creek are also easily accessible, although the steep stairway descent to Lower Falls — West Virginia’s second-highest waterfall — can be strenuous. The Falls are located just off forested section of the Highland Scenic Highway, which splits from WV Rt. 39 at the Cranberry Nature Center. From here, the highway heads north, skirting the Cranberry Wilderness and providing unparalleled views of the Williams River Valley at several points above 4500 feet.
A Varied Landscape: Supporters Advocate Flexibility in Management
While much of the area at the center of the potential Birthplace of Rivers National Monument is designated Wilderness, peripheral lands are managed for a variety of activities and levels of accessibility. In assessing the impact of national monument designation, it is important to consider how protection of the unique resources of the landscape can be compatible with a flexibility necessary to manage for spruce restoration, recreational access, invasive plant control, insect or disease breakout, and other issues that may arise in the future. Whereas some of these activities may be constrained under Wilderness designation, national monument status can allow land managers to maintain flexibility to continue — even promote — activities which enhance the recreational experience and further existing restoration goals emphasized in much of the area under consideration. Existing national monuments, especially U.S. Forest Service-managed monuments provide clear precedent for active restoration, fish and wildlife management, and continued access for a variety of activities which may not be allowed in designated Wilderness.