By Jody Brumage
This week, our traveling exhibit, Robert C. Byrd: Senator, Statesman, West Virginian is going to be featured in the West Virginia Press Association Convention at Canaan Valley. We thank the press association for this opportunity to share the exhibit with representatives of the press from across the state, many of whom have helped us to spread the word about various events on our exhibit tour over the past sixteen months. The upcoming trip inspired us to look into the archives and see what role Senator Byrd played in the creation of one aspect of this scenic region: the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1957, S. Maude Kaemmerling, part of an influential family in West Virginia's timer industry, left 3,135 acres of land in Canaan Valley to the state in her will, creating the impetus for the first conservation efforts in the valley. West Virginia used the land to create Canaan Valley State Park, supported by funding through the Economic Development Administration. This vital federal agency was created in part by legislation proposed by West Virginia's first congresswoman, Elizabeth Kee, and signed into law by President John F. Kennedy. The Canaan Valley State Park opened in 1963.
In the late-1980s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service began conducting studies in the region to determine if a national wildlife refuge might be the best solution to preserve the unique ecosystem of Canaan Valley while also accommodating the vital tourism and recreation economy supporting the region. The plan met some significant opposition among local residents who were concerned about the impact the proposed refuge would have on hunting and fishing in the region as well as access to their private property. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and local organizations worked together to reach a compromise. While the boundaries of the new refuge would encompass 24,000 acres in Canaan Valley, refuge restrictions would not be imposed until land was acquired by the fish and wildlife service, granting protections to existing landowners in the region. Meanwhile, Senator Byrd was working to secure federal appropriations to begin acquiring land. In 1993, the Senate approved a $2 million appropriation for the new refuge.
The refuge received a major boost in 2002 when Senator Byrd and Congressman Alan Mollohan helped to facilitate a deal with the Allegheny Energy Corporation which added 12,000 acres to the refuge. The corporation owned the land once considered for the hydroelectric dam project which had been abandoned several years earlier. This acquisition expanded the refuge to 15,245 acres. Today, the wildlife refuge, along with the Canaan Valley State Park, continue to make the region a popular scenic attraction.