Blackwater Canyon's Legacy

Actress Mischa Barton appears on stage during MTV's "Total Request Live" show at the MTV Times Square Studios, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006 in New York. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
For years, hikers and kayakers and nature lovers in West Virginia have enjoyed Blackwater Canyon. However, what these people did not know was that the area was private property. It has been sold to a lumber company, setting the scene for a battle between environmentalists and private business. Sunday Morning's Randall Pinkston has the story.

Blackwater Canyon in northern West Virginia is breathtaking any time of year. But in the fall, it explodes with the colors of the sun. With its rich variety of plants, fowl, and wildlife, this natural wonder easily earns its reputation as the "crown jewel" of the state.

Judy Rodd's family has lived in West Virginia for 130 years. The canyon has always been special to her: "I think it's the quiet, you know. And the sort of vastness that you can look around and see this unbroken forest and the sound of the water, the birds in the forest. It's peace, really, the peaceful feeling of being in the remote mountains."

John Crites grew up in West Virginia, and says Blackwater Canyon is a favorite spot for tourism in the state. Like Rodd, he expresses deep affection for these woods: "I just love the forest... I'd rather be here than any place I know. When I was a young man, any chance I had, I'd go to the woods."

Despite this shared passion, their visions of the future couldn't be farther apart. You see, Crites wants to log the canyon.

"We own 3,000 acres here in Blackwater Canyon. We have management plans right now to harvest approximately 700 acres," he says.

Environmentalists like Rodd and Vivian Stockman of the West Virginia Highland Conservancy are determined to stop him.

"John Crites has a lot of timber land he could buy in West Virginia," says Rodd. "Why did he buy something that is so dear to the hearts of so many West Virginians?"

To Stockman, "there's no dollar value that can be placed on this canyon. It's a place that makes your spirit soar."

For most of this century, the public had virtually unlimited access to the canyon, even though it was owned by a state utility company. Last year conservationists tried to buy the land for $3.5 million. The utility rejected that offer. John Crites bought it for $5 million.

Crites explains: "We bought this for the trees. The trees are so important for the jobs we create. We need the trees to supply our mills, not only for today but for the future."

Crite's company, Allegheny Wood Products, owns five saw mills in West Virginia, three kilns, and a finishing plant. In a state where good jobs are often hard to find, he employs 493 people.

Crites thinks timber operations and environmentalists can co-exist: "I think most of our goals are the same. We love the forest. We want to keep the forest intact. The only difference s that they want to preserve, and we want to manage them."

Stockman's response: "Well, who wants to hike, bike, or even kayak past a logging job?"

At the turn of the century this area was denuded by logging. Environmentalists fear it could happen again.

Rodd says she doesn't trust Crites:"I think that he's a businessman and the bottom line is money. And that if he needed to cut all the trees in here because of something that happened in his business, he would."

Mark Sturgill is Crite's chief forester. He says talk of leveling trees is a leftover from the past. His company has won a number of industry awards for its forest management. He took us to an area harvested last summer and fall.

Sturgill: Our plans are to come in about every 15 years and selectively harvest timber.
Pinkston: And fifteen years from now we'll see these trees a lot larger?
Sturgill: Yeah, they'll....
Pinkston: And some new trees?
Sturgill: Yeah.
Pinkston: I would assume growing up.
Sturgill: These trees will put on new growth and then places where the sun will get in into the floor, regeneration will take place.

Rodd took us to Briery Mountain in nearby Preston County to a place where she says John Crites' company logged a few years ago: "We're looking at erosion, we're looking at tree tops left, we're looking at roads that were left unseeded after the work was done and just a general mess."

Allegheny Wood Products said the damage on the mountain was caused by an ice storm, not their harvesting.

"Our point here isn't to argue about good timber versus bad timber," says Rodd. "It's really to say 'no timbering here.'"

Yet there is more than logging at stake in the canyon. Conservationists are convinced that Crites will sell the land to developers, and some day expensive condominiums will dot these ridges only three hours from Washington, D.C.

Pinkston: If someone asks you to promise that you won't sell it for land development, would you make such a promise?
Crites: I love this land so much, that it has never - I've never really even considered that. And I don't think that we'd be willing to make that promise.

Before John Crites bought the land, anyone could experience the spectacular view from Lindy Point, perhaps the most famous landmark in the canyon if not the state.

"People come here and get married," says Rodd. "People's ashes are tossed off this point. It's a sacred spot and now it's off limits to the people of West Virginia and the world."

When Allegheny Wood Products started cutting trees last year, "no trespassing" signs began popping up. It is now illegal to hike out to Lindy Point.

Stockman points out, "You can see right here a posted no trespassing sign. These are all along the area. They're just not letting anybody in, even on the trails onto the national forest area. And then here's a fire ring thre. This used to be a campsite. Obviously people aren't welcome any more."

Matt Marcus opposes logging. He's had a bike shop near the canyon for ten years. "Little by little the various posting of land and land sales have made this a less and less attractive area for people to come. And we've seen it. You can look at the hotel-motel tax revenues for the last five or ten years and you can see a sudden drop-off in 1997 which continues through this year."

Pinkston: Once you have harvested a given area that's posted, would you remove the postings and open it again to the public?
Crites: We haven't made a decision on that. If we doÂ…we'll have to have limited access, same as the United States Forest Service. You just don't go in on their land, you know, helter skelter.
Pinkston: And what about Lindy Point?
Crites: We haven't made that decision.
Pinkston: So Lindy Point could conceivably be totally private?
Crites: It's something that my family wants to keep. But there's several other points that are just as beautiful if not more beautiful that we're willing to trade to the United States Forest Service.

Crites has proposed swapping 750 acres of his land in Blackwater Canyon for U.S. forest land elsewhere in West Virginia. It will include all of the river and its banks. But not Lindy Point.

Conservationist Judy Rodd says there is only one acceptable solution: "We're certainly hoping that Mr. Crites will see how much people care - how heart-felt they are, how they cry over this canyon being lost. And he will change his mind and sell it to the government."

John Crites says his land is not for sale: "I have difficulty understanding with the passion I have for this land, and for the forest, and for the future of the forest why they think I - they don't trust me to manage it wisely."

Old suspicions die slowly. As fall gives way to winter in Blackwater Canyon, old suspicions hang heavy over the crown jewel of West Virginia.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed