West Virginia

Little Bluestone River tract protected, made accessible

JUMPING BRANCH, W.Va. (AP) – A section of the Little Bluestone River and the steep, forested hills that rise from its rocky banks near its confluence with the Bluestone National Scenic River will be protected and opened to the public.

The recently dedicated Little Bluestone Community Forest in Summers County is the first property in West Virginia to be acquired with financial assistance from the US Forest Service’s Community Forest Program. To date, 140 acres have been purchased for the forest, with 230 contiguous acres to be purchased over the next few years.

“This project validates all Community Forest Program requirements,” said Brent Bailey, director of the West Virginia Land Trust, the nonprofit organization that will manage the property and is leading efforts to raise the funds needed to purchase the remaining acreage.

“We are protecting a public water source, maintaining a healthy forest, promoting biodiversity and providing additional benefits to the public through access to this land and the recreation it will provide,” Bailey said. “Plus, the project has strong community support.”

Long-term plans include the development of trails in the new forest, potentially connecting to the 9-mile Bluestone Turnpike Trail, which stretches the length of the adjacent Bluestone National Scenic River, and to both Pipestem and Bluestone State Parks connected is.

Helping preserve the area’s history is another role played by the Little Bluestone Community Forest. Its original 140-acre tract buffers the site of Cooper’s Mill, built 153 years ago to process corn and wheat into meal and flour for generations of subsistence farmers in Summers County.

The Summers County Commission purchased the mill and 10 adjacent acres several years ago and, with the help of the Friends of Cooper’s Mill conservation group, made repairs to the mill and a nearby forge, and restored the upstream dam that diverted water to turn its waterwheel .

Built and first operated by Robert “Miller Bob” Lilly in 1869, the mill and forge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1883 the mill was purchased by Josiah Cooper and remained in the Cooper family’s hands until it ceased operations in 1949 and beyond.

Initial plans call for the development of an access road into the Little Bluestone Community Forest from Ellison Ridge Road with an on-site parking lot to allow easy public access to the mill. A path leading from the mill site downriver to the old wagon road that once linked the mill to the former town of Lilly is also part of the tentative plans for the forest.

Built near the confluence of the Little Bluestone and Bluestone rivers, Lilly was originally settled in the late 18th century. It was once the site of a school, church and several houses and was demolished in 1949, a year after Bluestone Dam was completed. Engineers believed at the time that the city site would be inundated by water backed up behind the dam during a major flood event, but as it turns out, the city site has remained dry since it was purchased by the federal government.

“This place is a little time capsule,” said Jack Woodrum, a former Summers County commissioner who currently represents the district in the state Senate, during the dedication ceremony held at the mill last week. New public access to the mill area, along with trails along the old wagon road and a scenic stretch of Little Bluestone, will make the community forest “a great tourist destination,” Woodrum predicted.

Little Bluestone’s sixth-generation landowner, Jack Willis, said he’s pleased his property, which is now part of the new community forest, will be preserved and cared for for generations to come.

“I remember coming here in the early 1940s and watching my great-grandfather Tom Cooper grow corn at the mill,” said Willis, who bought the mill and some land surrounding it in 1967, 17 years after the mill ceased operations.

The creation of the Little Bluestone Community Forest “is a good thing for Summers County, Southern West Virginia and beyond,” he said.

Under the terms of the community forest agreement with the forest service, “the West Virginia Land Trust will retain ownership of the property and will manage it in cooperation with the community,” said Amy Cimarolli, the trust’s land conservation specialist.

The project is supported by the Summers County Commission, the Summers County Historic Landmark Commission, the City of Hinton, the Hinton Area Foundation and the State Division of Forestry.

The project received a $192,000 allocation from the Forest Service’s Community Forest Program through a competitive grant process in fiscal 2021. Since 2010, the program has funded up to 50% of land acquisition costs to purchase 27,480 acres of woodland in 25 states.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund, and the American Water Charitable Foundation also helped fund the land purchase for the community forest.

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