It is said that in the mid 1700's, George Casey Harness was out tracking an enormous black bear one morning, when he came to a spot “on the western slope of the Alleghenies which overlooked a wide, well-watered, wooded and grassy valley.
The breath-taking beauty of the wild valley so impressed young Harness that he involuntarily cried out, ‘Behold! The Land of Canaan!’ “ The story, quoted from Jack Preble’s book Land of Canaan, (1960, McClain Printing Company, page 1), is but one of the ways that the valley may have gotten its name.
1950's: The idea of a National Wildlife Refuge in Canaan Valley is born. Time is approximate. Apparently, after touring the valley, biologists from WV Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) discuss ways to conserve it, including making it a National Wildlife Refuge. Nothing is documented about these early conversations.
1961: Early studies. A biological survey of Canaan Valley’s wetlands was completed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) looked at the idea of creating a refuge in the valley. At this time, most refuges supported large numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds. Canaan Valley, being between the migratory flyways of these birds, was not considered important enough for the shorebirds and waterfowl to become a National Wildlife Refuge.
1970's: The idea of a refuge in Canaan Valley surfaced again. The Service was now looking beyond shorebirds and waterfowl to making other unique habitats National Wildlife Refuges.
1974: Canaan Valley was declared a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service. This designation was given in recognition of the valley’s extensive wetlands, wildlife and habitats.
1976: Realty and Biological Reconnaissance reports, based on field study, were prepared.
1978: Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge was released for public comment. Comments received were summarized and considered in writing the Final EIS.
1979: The Final Environmental Impact Statement was approved and released to the public on May 30, 1979. “This administrative action resulted in an approved land acquisition boundary, encompassing 28,000 acres, within which lands could be acquired for the refuge, according to the policy described in the Proposed Action section of the EIS.” (USFWS, 1994)
The Monongahela Power Company, a division of Allegheny Power Systems, a major land owner in the valley had another proposal out. They wanted to build a pumped storage hydroelectric facility in the valley that would have flooded much of the valley’s wetlands. They had received a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for the project, but had been denied a permit by the U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers (Corps), to place fill in wetlands under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The power company was appealing the Corps decision.
1979: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to await the outcome of the power company’s appeals before purchasing land in Canaan Valley.
1988: The power company lost its final appeal. The Supreme Court declined to review the finding of the U.S. Court of Appeals that the power company did need a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Their inability to get the required permit meant that their project could not proceed.
1990: The Environmental Protection Agency convened a series of meetings to develop a comprehensive resource protection strategy for the valley. Meetings resulted in the formation of the Canaan Valley Task Force.
The Canaan Valley Task Force was comprised of state and federal resource and regulatory agencies, local government representatives, business and development interests, conservation and recreation interests, landowners, public representatives. The task force:
The County Commission requested that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service limit the Refuge to the power company lands, excluding 9600 acres of private lands. The Service considered their request by first studying wildlife resources on the private lands in the southern part of the valley. Those lands whose value as wildlife habitat had been reduced by development since the original EIS were removed from the proposed Refuge boundary. Lands whose value as wildlife habitat remained intact were kept in the acquisition boundary. Thus the refuge acquisition area was reduced by 4135 acres.
1990-94: As a result of working with the Canaan Valley Task Force, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
1994: Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established when the Freeland Tract was purchased on August 11, 1994
In October, the refuge was dedicated as the nation’s 500th National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
Beall and Cortland tracts soon followed the original land purchase.
1994 - 2001: The refuge slowly grew to just over 3000 acres in size. Staff grew to 6: a Manager, 2 Biologists, a Public Use and Outreach Specialist, a Maintenance Worker and an Administrative Assistant.
2002: In February, the refuge acquired just under 12,000 acres from Allegheny Power Systems, including much of the wetlands in the central part of the valley. This brought the total acreage of the Refuge to 15, 245.
2003: On March 14th, Canaan Valley NWR joined with other refuges across the nation in celebrating the centennial of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
2011: In February the refuge adopted its first comprehensive conservation plan (CCP). This document was created with input from other wildlife managers, researchers and public stakeholders. It will guide refuge management for the next fifteen years.
The refuge opened designated trails, 31 miles for pedestrian use, 23 miles for bicycle use, 22 miles for horseback use and 7 miles of roads for licenced vehicles to provide public access for wildlife observation, photography, fishing and learning about nature. Hunting is also available on the refuge.
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A patchwork of 23 wetland types, including bogs, shrub swamps and wet meadows carpet the valley floor. At about 8,500 acres, this is the largest wetland complex in the state of West Virginia, and is a regionally significant wetland complex within the southern Appalachians.