Save Blackwater Canyon?
The O Pine

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© 2006 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

What would Superman do?
For many years now an organization called the Friends of Blackwater Canyon have promoted a campaign called “Save Blackwater”. Their goal is to prevent the conversion of an abandoned railroad right-of-way to a logging access road. However commendable their intent may have been, it is no excuse for the abuse of truth and public trust that the organization has perpetrated.

The Friends behave as though Allegheny Wood Products, the lumbering company, intend to convert a public trail into an industrial right-of-way through unspoiled wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest. Facts, however, present a different picture: the trail in question is not maintained by the park service and lies only partially within the public domain—exactly half of it, in fact. The other half of the trail belongs rightfully to AWP, and the Friends have more than likely been trespassing on private property whenever they use the trail.

It should not come as any great surprise that AWP would want to use the trail sooner or later. With ownership legally in AWP’s hands, the most belligerence the government can reasonably muster is to refuse the other half of the right-of-way, forcing AWP to build a newer road a few feet away. The only way to remove any possibility of a road being built is to put the land into the ownership of individuals or an organization committed to not building roads. Talks to purchase the land have gone nowhere, leaving the only other option of government land seizure—an unappealing prospect at best.

Until such a time as enough money is raised to buy the land at a price that AWP can’t refuse, or until the government decides to seize the land outright—a sad day for property rights, should it come to pass—then the Friends must accept the reality that their beloved railroad bed is in joint ownership. Instead, the Friends continue to press their demands for free access to private property without so much as an admission of the facts. Indeed, they blatantly mischaracterize AWP’s position, using inflammatory photos of big rigs barrelling down wide dusty avenues, implying a constant stream of heavy traffic through the formerly unspoiled forest.

This “unspoiled” forest, like most of the state, has been repeatedly clear-cut in the 19th and 20th centuries, and industrial remains still stand to this day. The rail bed itself dates to the 19th century for timber and coal transport, and was active until 1983. Regardless of whether AWP’s proposed selective cutting should take place, it does not serve the public good to mischaracterize the history of the land.

The selective cutting that AWP proposes is not well represented by the Friends’ portrayal of a constant stream of heavy truck traffic. The proposal in the Environmental Impact Statement allows only for a six-foot-wide road, and only for selective cutting every ten to fifteen years. In consideration for being given easier access to its own property, using a road that is already half on its own land, to selectively cut its own timber once or twice in a generation, the Forest Service asks for many concessions from AWP:

  • AWP will be responsible for the cost of the upgrade to the railroad bed and upgrades to drainage. Taxpayers will not be footing the bill. Maintenance costs will be shared based on usage.
  • The Forest Service will have a reciprocal easement on AWP’s side of the road, allowing the Forest Service to maintain the trail’s recreational and heritage features on the private property near the road.
  • The new road will not be allowed to extend any wider than the original railroad bed (generally only six feet, which will make it difficult for those big rigs to get up and down the road).
  • AWP will not be allowed to use the road on weekends or holidays, and will have to notify the Forest Service prior to beginning any timbering operations.
  • The road surface will have to be built to accommodate bicyclists, and AWP will not be allowed to plow the road in the winter, to accommodate cross-country skiiers.
  • AWP will be compelled to work with the Forest Service and the State Historic Preservation Office to preserve historic structures along the road, including the reinforcement of structures, weight limits on vehicles to prevent damage, and the placement of interpretive markers for visitors.

It is hard to imagine that the Friends cannot see the advantages to an agreement like this. Until someone finds the money to buy AWP’s land, the alternative might be that AWP just builds a road on its side of the property line, puts up a fence to keep trespassers off, and calls it a day. Instead, AWP is, in essence, ceding the railway-turned-roadway to the public in exchange for the right to use that road once a decade.

Of course, the Friends of Blackwater Canyon are entitled to be obstinate and stick their heads in the sand if that’s the way they want to play it. What they’re not entitled to do is lie to the public about the actual stakes in the debate. This breach of the public trust is inexcusable. If this organization cannot even acknowledge the basic facts of the matter, it is hard to accept as credible any other input they may have to offer.