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Pristine W.Va. land threatened by sale talk

Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BRUCETON MILLS, W.VA. -- It is spring, and white water fed by melting snow races through Cheat River Canyon and Big Sandy Creek Gorge. Oak, beech and hemlock tower over the tumbling flows, and thickets of rhododendrons line them like a crowd at a parade.

But there is fear in this almost heavenly part of the state. The whitewater boaters, cavers, hikers, birders, campers, hunters and fishers who love this region are worried that its pristine beauty will be spoiled because a power conglomerate, Allegheny Energy, is seeking public bids for 5,400 acres it owns along the waterways.

They fear that the strapped electric company's decision last week to end exclusive negotiations to sell the land to the state and instead put the properties up for public bid could open the ecologically fragile, steep-sloped canyon and gorge to timbering, mining and housing development.

"As landowners go, Allegheny Energy has been good. Its lands have always been open for public use and I'm sorry to see them go," said Charlie Walbridge, a kayaker and member of American Whitewater and Friends of the Cheat, two of the organizations fighting to preserve the canyon and gorge.

"We just want to make sure that this stays the kind of place where people want to come and visit, live and work. We think the best way to do that would be for the state to buy it."

Allegheny Energy acquired the properties along the Cheat River and Big Sandy Creek in Preston County, 100 miles south of Pittsburgh, in the 1920s for hydroelectric projects that were never built. It is selling them now because it is heavily in debt and needs to raise cash.

The Maryland-based company, which sells electricity in Pennsylvania as West Penn Power, suffered financial losses when it expanded into wholesale energy trading shortly before the Enron Corp. collapse decimated that industry. The company has been hurt during the past year by lawsuits, credit downgrades and stock sell-offs.

To aid its recovery, Allegheny Energy has scaled back its energy trading, canceled power plant construction projects, suspended stock dividends and reduced its work force by 10 percent.

Last week, after negotiating with the state of West Virginia and its agent, the nonprofit Conservation Fund, for almost a year, Allegheny Energy, which has donated thousands of acres to West Virginia for state parks and other public lands over the years, announced it was soliciting bids on the properties.

"It's not that we reached an impasse, but we never got to the point where an acceptable offer was made," said Allen Staggers, a spokesman for the energy company. "A lot of parties have shown interest, and the state was one. As things developed it became clear we didn't know the real value of the properties, so we came to the conclusion to solicit bids."

Staggers would not say how much the company expects to get for the properties or whether it has received inquiries from private developers or mining and lumber companies. He said 30 bid packages were sent out.

Susan Small-Plante, a spokeswoman for West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, said the Conservation Fund had offered $700 an acre -- $3.78 million -- for the properties and secured a $1 million, no-interest, three-year loan from the Nature Conservancy.

The loan gives the state, which is facing a tight budget, time to raise additional money for the purchase from fees or Land and Water Conservation Program funds, Small-Plante said.

In past land sales, Allegheny Energy allowed the state to spread out payments over time, but that isn't an option now because of the company's financial troubles.

The decision to put the properties out for bid surprised and disappointed Wise, who in a letter to Jay Pifer, Allegheny Energy president, urged him to reconsider.

"The potential negative consequences of the sale of this property to private interests are many," the governor wrote, "including avoidable and unnecessary conflicts involving impacts on endangered species, the negative impact on various economic development efforts in the surrounding communities and the effect on traditional and future recreational access to this vital resource."

The region is home to more than 50 caves and 10 threatened or endangered species, including the Indiana bat and the flat-spired three-toothed land snail.

The possible land sale has pushed local environmental groups into a frenzy of action.

Letter writing and e-mail campaigns were initiated by the Cheat Canyon Coalition, an umbrella organization for 13 conservation and outdoors groups. Ten state legislators in West Virginia also have signed a letter urging Allegheny Energy to sell the land to the state.

"Many people from the Pittsburgh area have enjoyed the caves down there," said Heather Houlahan, a Pittsburgh Grotto chapter member of the National Speleological Society from Cranberry. "It would be a terrible thing to see an area like that, a major wild area intact as it is, lost to development."

Houlahan said allowing limestone quarries to mine in the canyon or gorge would disrupt the normal flow of water into tributary streams and create major problems for the Cheat River.

Walbridge said studies done by the state showed that making the canyon and gorge areas public lands would increase recreation expenditures and economic benefits to the surrounding communities by $575,000 a year. The amount of tax revenues lost by converting the Allegheny Energy land to public ownership would be $6,200 a year.

He said Friends of the Cheat and other groups would help raise the money necessary to buy the land, and Small-Plante said the governor's office had received offers of donations for the land, including one for $50,000.

Staggers said it was still possible for the state to purchase the land, but said the company could begin evaluating bids as early as May. Small-Plante said the state had requested a bid package from the company and remained in the hunt.

"This is a significant piece of property, not only because of the endangered species. The tracts are tremendously important to the recreational economy of the area and state," she said. "This is not just another piece of land."

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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