The Conservation Fund is making an investment in this part of the country, working directly with community members, and local, state and federal partners to demonstrate that conservation and economy support each other. In January, 2016, the Fund purchased 32,296 acres in Logan, Lincoln and Mingo counties in the southern part of the state that will eventually create the state’s largest, conserved block of prime habitat for elk restoration while also working towards community redevelopment.


Several of The Conservation Fund’s programs are headquartered in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, including the Freshwater Institute (FI). Fund Vice President and FI’s former Director, Joe Hankins, has worked and lived in West Virginia for the last twenty years, and has a strong connection to the state and the community. When the Fund undertook the project, no one was better suited to lead it.

The Fund purchased the property through our Working Forest Fund (WFF) with support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. WFF uses conservation-focused forest management strategies to enhance forest health and productivity, wildlife habitat and water quality, while supporting the economic well being of surrounding communities. West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) could not afford to acquire the entire property in one purchase.  However, through the WFF we are able to structure a phased transfer of both the timber value of the working forestland and protection of the natural resources to state control.

The Fund has begun a multi-year plan to convey the land to the DNR. In 2016, we transferred 10,922 acres with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Program, a grant from the Acres for America program, established by Walmart and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a grant from the Knobloch Family Foundation. We have since permanently protected the entire 32,296 acres as sustainable working forestland and wildlife habitat either under a conservation easement held by the State or through DNR’s ownership and management. Previously industrially owned, this rough, rugged territory is open to the public as wildlife management areas, helping people to reengage with land they are culturally connected to.


Through this conservation effort, West Virginia joins a multi-state landscape level effort to restore elk to the Appalachian region. The reclaimed mine lands that are part of the overall acreage provide ideal grassland and forest habitat for a variety of wildlife species, including elk, deer, wild turkey, golden winged warbler and grassland birds. Majestic, thousand-pound elk were native to West Virginia two centuries ago, last seen at the end of the Civil War. Market hunted and habitat squeezed out of existence, the prospect of bringing elk back to West Virginia for both wildlife viewing and hunting purposes has triggered excitement across the region, not least for the eco-tourism opportunities. In Kentucky, a similar match with elk and reclaimed mine lands has been successful, and the West Virginia DNR will be working with Kentucky and Tennessee to bring in small numbers of elk each year to establish a population. Already volunteers in West Virginia have built soft release pens and special vegetation plots on the conserved land in preparation for the elk arrival.

The land acquistion and conservation was just the first step. To fully integrate and take advantage of the opportunities in the region—eco-tourism, recreation, service economies—we must first protect the natural resource economy, then work with the communities to build up the infrastructure. Through our integrated services, the Fund is bringing expertise, capital, partners and management to a part of the country where others are skeptical of investment and that we believe needs to be protected.

“We don’t believe that singular dependence on energy extraction is the end of the story. Now that the coal industry is failing, we’re not letting this community fail. We’re proud to be a this effort to conserve an important and promising landscape, create new opportunities on land that once supported the state through it resources, and redefine conservation to provide multiple tangible economic and environmental benefits for local communities. This is a win-win proposition for all West Virginians.”

—Joe Hankins, Vice President, Director of Freshwater Institute