In West Virginia, Eco-Tourism Is Becoming Second Nature

Rustic wood cabins at the Bear Mountain Farm &  Wilderness Retreat were built in part by carpentry students and are simply furnished with books, a coffeemaker and electricity.
Rustic wood cabins at the Bear Mountain Farm & Wilderness Retreat were built in part by carpentry students and are simply furnished with books, a coffeemaker and electricity. (By Christina Talcott -- The Washington Post)
By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 26, 2005

I'd come to West Virginia seeking signs of its budding eco-tourism business. The state has been called "Wild and Wonderful" and is known as the "Mountain State," but it's also known for a mining practice called mountaintop removal. A drive through a national forest yields lush, green views, but sometimes the view is obscured by a caravan of logging trucks.

Although mining and manufacturing have long been the mainstays of the state's economy, tourism is booming. This summer, the West Virginia Division of Tourism released a study showing that travel spending has increased by more than 11 percent every year since 2000, and some local business owners have a long-range vision: to make sure those things people are coming to see now -- the mountains, the trees, the clean rivers -- will be around for a long time to come. Taking cues from tourism success stories in places such as Costa Rica, West Virginia's eco-tourism pioneers are getting organized.

John and Carol Williams are among those branding their services as eco-tourism. The couple owns Natural Seasons Bed & Breakfast, a restored, two-story Federalist house in the tiny town of Weston, which is surrounded by mountains and bisected by the West Branch of the Monongahela River. Natural Seasons is the headquarters of the West Virginia Eco-Tourism Association, a collection of businesses united under eco-friendly tenets and the urge to bring more visitors to their state.

The word "eco-tourism" (or "sustainable tourism," the term some use, sloughing off "eco's" crunchy connotations) conjures up visions of coral reefs, tropical rain forests and African wildlife. But it doesn't have to mean "exotic"; it really just boils down to a few essentials, including environmental conservation, community participation and self-sustainability. The last requirement rules out the U.S. National Park Service and state and local parks because they receive tax dollars. (How much they get or don't get is a whole 'nother story.) So it's mostly small businesses trying to get in on what looks like a profitable trend: people wanting green vacations.

Natural Seasons B&B is green, all right. The first thing I noticed was the wild-looking organic garden surrounding the house, bursting with berries and visited by birds. The house has four guest rooms, all decorated with a seasonal theme. I stayed in the Fall Room, amber-hued with refreshingly spare decor and a window fan -- a crucial detail, because the Williamses don't use air conditioning. I fell asleep that night in a cool cocoon of familiarity, the fan's whir the sound of my childhood summer nights.

In the morning John fixed me eggs (from a local farmer) and tomato sauce (from the garden), a mixed berry salad (ditto) and coffee brought back by an associate who recently led an eco-tour in Costa Rica.

Besides conserving energy and water, growing native plants organically and using local produce, John Williams leads nature walks nearly every Saturday, and the association offers tour packages including lodging, activities and all-natural meals. The Eco-Tourism Association includes West Virginia businesses -- mostly lodging -- committed to high environmental standards. Natural Seasons is the first of those members to be certified by Green Globe 21, a program that issues requirements and accredits businesses involved in eco-tourism.

Snowshoe Mountain is another West Virginia business with the Green Globe seal of approval. The resort offers a raft of activities, including mountain biking, boating and horseback riding in the summer, and skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling in the winter. It's first and foremost a destination for outdoor sports, and I was curious to see how it could balance the standards of eco-tourism with running a behemoth resort.

My first impression was an impressive one. Driving up the mountain, I slammed on the brakes when I saw that unmistakable black-on-green of a black bear coming out of the woods. I looked at him, thrilled and awestruck -- he was so close! -- and he looked right back at me from behind the road's guardrail. As I reached for my camera he scampered away.

But just a mile up the road was a ridge top full of cranes (not birds), Caterpillars (with a capital C) and skeletons of buildings going up. Snowshoe has a Habitat Conservation Plan to protect its resident endangered species, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel and the Cheat Mountain salamander. But all the activity in the resort served as a strong reminder: Some eco-tourism is at least as much tourism as it is eco .

Showshoe offers two guided nature walks every day, and the day I went, I was the only one signed up. My energetic young guide, Corey Heinemann, left his post at the Outpost Adventure Park (home of the climbing wall, skate park and mini golf course) to show me around.

The soon-to-be college freshman cheerfully rode with me down the ski lift and walked with me around the lake, then up a steep wooded trail. We didn't see any wildlife, but we saw fresh tire tracks in the mud: mountain bikers. The path was steep and winding and rutted with tree roots, and I couldn't believe anyone would try to tackle it -- even just downhill -- on a bike.

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