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.
Finally at the mountain's summit, we climbed to the top of the water tower, where we had a gorgeous view of green mountains, streaked though they were by Snowshoe's ski slopes.
Later that day, I drove to Bear Mountain Farm & Wilderness Retreat. Just over the border in Virginia, down a gravelly road through dense woods, this was where generations of farmers raised potatoes and corn on the rocky land. In a clearing is a cluster of small log cabins and, at the end of a driveway, a larger house that wouldn't look out of place in Takoma Park -- except for the mountains just beyond. It's in Highland County, Virginia's least populated county.
Tom Brody and Patti Reum, who call their dog Haiku and their home "the Lodge," run Bear Mountain as an eco-retreat. Tom used to offer classes for adults, teaching rural living skills, nature classes and traditional carpentry. (Those cabins were built, at least in part, by students.) They are both trained naturalists, and she teaches science at the local public school.
Brody and Reum have a few hiking trails on their property (thoughtfully marked with colored ribbons tied around trees), and they often host cavers and bikers who need a place to sleep in between bouts of activity. But Reum says people tend to use the retreat as a restful escape. "We're not really adventure; we're more . . . peaceful," she said.
The four cabins on the property are simply furnished, each with electricity, bookshelves of nature guides and extra blankets; the largest one can sleep as many as five adults. Near the cabins are a communal bathhouse (none of the cabins have bathrooms), a wood-burning sauna, a hot tub and a large, timbered cabin with a full kitchen (because meals aren't provided) next to a cozy area with couches and lots of books, games and information about the animals and plants outside. (Education is a big component of the Bear Mountain experience.) Bear Mountain was the most rustic and remote place I'd seen in my eco-touring trip, but it was far from roughing it: With electricity, a table and a coffeemaker in each cabin, it was a prime spot for writing. In fact, Brody and Reum told me I was the second person in a month to show up toting a laptop. (I also got an excellent cell phone signal -- who'd have guessed?)
Right in our own back yard, there are lots of people trying to make a go at eco-tourism, hoping that there are others willing to think about the fragility of the places they are visiting. And in the process of entertaining and educating as many people as possible, those hosts are focusing on minimizing human footprints in the wilderness. It's a complicated balance.
Even though eco-tourism is still tourism, Reum aptly described the effect of Bear Mountain on visitors: "When people first get here, they're usually really wound up. When they leave, they have a whole different energy."
BEAR MOUNTAIN FARM & WILDERNESS RETREAT -- Country Road 601, Hightown, Va. 540-468-2700. www.mountain-retreat.com. Cabins (no food provided), $75-$125 a night; camping, $25 a night.
NATURAL SEASONS BED & BREAKFAST -- 17 Center Ave., Weston, W.Va. www.bbonline.com/wv/natural. 304-269-7902 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Room and breakfast, $75 a night.
SNOWSHOE MOUNTAIN -- 10 Snowshoe Dr., Snowshoe, W.Va. Resort, 304-572-4636; lodging and reservations, 877-441-4386; Outpost Adventure Park, 304-572-5477. www.snowshoemtn.com. A variety of outdoor activities in winter and summer.
WARM SPRINGS MOUNTAIN PRESERVE -- The nonprofit environmental organization the Nature Conservancy offers tours of one of its Virginia preserves, near Bear Mountain in Warm Springs, Va. The next outings are: Birding Hike Sept. 16 at 5:30 p.m., and Falls Colors Hike Oct. 15 at 10 a.m. 540-839-3599 or nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/virginia/people/art15092.html.
WEST VIRGINIA ECO-TOURISM ASSOCIATION -- Saturday nature walks, plus tour packages and statewide lodging information. 800-225-5982 or e-mail email@example.com.
In most small mountain towns, dining options -- especially places that serve vegetarian and all-natural food -- are limited.
Weston has several restaurants, but the Sunday night I was there, I had dinner at Stonewall Resort's Stillwaters Lodge, where the food is a bit pricy (about $20 per entree) but well made and beautifully presented.
You may want to bring food for dinner and breakfast when you go to Bear Mountain, but you could also eat in Monterey, about a 15-minute drive east.
CRANBERRY'S GROCERY & EATERY -- Open daily 9 to 5. On your way home, stock up on all-natural products such as Burt's Bees Herbal Insect Repellent, and try a salad, smoothie, quiche or the signature Taj Mahal wrap (with chicken or tofu, $7.79). 7 S. New St., Staunton. 540-885-4755.
STONEWALL RESORT -- Open 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Dinner entrees average about $20. 940 Resort Dr., Roanoke. 304-269-7400.
Christina Talcott is a frequent contributor to Weekend.