By RICK STEELHAMMER, The Charleston Gazette-Mail
JUMPING BRANCH, W.Va. (AP) — A section of the Little Bluestone River and the steep, forested hills that rise from its rocky shores near its confluence with the Bluestone National Scenic River are being protected and made accessible to the public.
Little Bluestone Community Forest in Summers County, dedicated recently, is the first West Virginia property to be purchased with financial assistance from the US Forest Service’s Community Forest Program. So far, 140 acres have been acquired for the forest, with 230 adjacent acres targeted for purchase in the next few years.
“This project checks all the Community Forest Program’s boxes,” said Brent Bailey, director of the West Virginia Land Trust, the nonprofit that will manage the property and is leading the effort to raise the funds needed to buy the remaining acreage.
“We’re protecting a public water source, maintaining a healthy forest, promoting biodiversity and providing added 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-range plans call for trails to be developed in the new forest, possibly connecting to the 9-mile-long Bluestone Turnpike Trail, which spans the length of the neighboring Bluestone National Scenic River and connects with both Pipestem and Bluestone state parks.
Helping preserve area history is another role played by the Little Bluestone Community Forest. Its initial 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 Summers County subsistence farmers.
The Summers County Commission bought the mill and 10 adjacent acres several years ago and, with help from the Friends of Cooper’s Mill preservation group, made repairs to the mill and a nearby blacksmith shop and restored the upstream dam that diverted water to turn its waterwheel.
The mill and blacksmith shop, built and first operated in 1869 by Robert “Miller Bob” Lilly, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1883, the mill was bought by Josiah Cooper, and remained in Cooper family hands until it stopped operating in 1949 and beyond.
Initial plans call for development of an access road into Little Bluestone Community Forest from Ellison Ridge Road, with a parking area within the tract to make possible easy public access to the mill. A trail leading from the mill site downstream to the old wagon road that once connected the mill with the former town of Lilly also is among tentative plans for the forest.
Lilly, built near the confluence of the Little Bluestone and Bluestone rivers, was initially settled in the late 1700s. It once was the site of a school, a church and several homes, and was razed in 1949, the year after Bluestone Dam was completed. Engineers at the time believed the townsite would be flooded by water backed up behind the dam during a major high-water event but, as it turned out, the townsite has remained dry since its purchase by the federal government.
“This place is a little time capsule,” said Jack Woodrum, a former Summers County commissioner who currently represents the county in the state Senate, during last week’s dedication ceremony, held at the mill. New public access to the mill area, along with trails following the old wagon road and a scenic stretch of the Little Bluestone will make the community forest “a great destination for tourists,” Woodrum predicted.
Sixth-generation Little Bluestone landowner Jack Willis said he is pleased that his property, 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, running a turn of corn at the mill,” said Willis, who bought the mill and a tract of land surrounding it in 1967, 17 years after the mill. stopped operating.
The creation of 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 hold title to the property and will manage it with community collaboration,” said Amy Cimarolli, the trust’s land protection specialist.
The project is supported by the Summers County Commission, Summers County Historic Landmark Commission, City of Hinton, Hinton Area Foundation and the state Division of Forestry.
The project received an allocation of $192,000 from the Forest Service’s Community Forest Program through a competitive grant process during the 2021 fiscal year. Since 2010, the program has funded up to 50% of the cost of acquiring land to buy 27,480 acres of community forest lands in 25 states.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund and the American Water Charitable Foundation also helped finance the purchase of land for the community forest.
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