There’s been a long standing collaboration between West
and the National Park Service at the New River Gorge. Chair of WVU’s Geology
Department, Steven Kite, says over the course of a decade, his department has
worked with the park service to offer expertise in understanding the unique
geology and resources in and around the New River Gorge.
“New River Gorge, particularly the area around Fayetteville,
is the premiere climbing spot in the mid-Atlantic region,” Kite explains.
have to go at least to New York
or down to the Smokies to find comparable climbing rock. We were tasked with
determining why that rock is so good and what makes it different than other
sandstones that are throughout the region and draw so many people here—there
are over 1500 climbing trails developed on this one rock type. We were about
trying to figure out why this rock is the mother of all climbing rocks in the
In 2010 a multi-faceted study of the gorge began. Kite
worked with students as a geological guide.
“The geology around Fayetteville
and the New River Gorge is dominated by the Nuttall Sandstone,” Kite says.
Kite explains that geologic formations get their names from
places, and this formation was named for a 19th century Chesapeake
and Ohio Railroad station called Nuttall that existed where there was an
outcropping of the rock.
“The Nuttall is extremely massive. It’s very rich in quartz;
it’s a very hard rock. It’s also unusually massive in that for some reason that
we don’t fully understand, but for some reason, there are no silt layers in
between the sand layers in the Nuttall so the sand that is now the sandstone
was laid on other sand and the layers built up into solid masses that are
"The cliffs down there are sometimes 50 or 60 feet tall without
a break between the layers—that’s what’s so unusual about the Nuttall
sandstone. And that’s what makes it a premiere climbing spot.”
Kite says understanding the various ecosystems, and
potential human impacts on them, was also a focus of the study.
Amy Hessl is an associate professor of geography. She worked
with master’s student Peter Clark to take a closer look at the cliff-clinging
vegetation inhabiting the vertical sandstone faces and crevasses of the gorge.
“Some of the surprising things that have come out of it so
far—and it’s not complete—are that there were several species of organisms that
we thought were either extinct from West Virginia—so, locally extirpated—because
they hadn’t been observed since the early part of the 20th century,”
Hessl explains, “but Pete observed them in some of his plots. In fact, some of
them turned out to be very common on the cliffs. So what that led us to
understand is that these cliffs are actually unique ecosystems in their own
gold dust is one of the lichens previously unknown to exist in the state. Peter
Clark, an avid climber, found the lichen in 60% of the cliff segments he
surveyed while rappelling down various rock faces. In all, 139 species of
vascular plants like ferns, 130 species of lichens, and 93 species of
bryophytes, like moss, were identified growing on the tops, bottoms or cliff
faces in the New River Gorge.
“It was very fun and it required a lot of work,” Clark
says of this study, which required extensive climbing and rappelling. He says
the study one of the first of its kind in the country.
“I think what was neat about it was that the plants that we
were able to observe in these steep and over-hanging areas were generally
inaccessible to a lot of other folks. So we were able to collect some specimens
and preserve a lot of these in the West Virginia
University herbarium for future
researchers to investigate,” says Clark.
Dave Smaldone is the project’s lead researcher. An associate
professor of recreation, parks, and tourism resources in WVU’s Davis College of
Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, Smaldone’s focus is on anoverall
assessment of recreational activity. He and some students have been studying
social trends and impacts of tourism throughout the park.
They’ve been mapping
unofficial trails, referred to as “social trails,” canvassing tourists with
surveys to better understand who is attracted to the area and why, and
compiling educational outreach materials the park could potentially use to
“We’ll look at the information that we have figure out what
people might need to know, what they want to know, and how we can best get them
the information the park would like them to have and they would like to have,”
Smaldone says a comprehensive report compiling all the
findings is expected in 2013. The report will be used by the National Park
Service to make educated management decisions, and to help better educate the
public on the natural resources that exist, and how best to responsibly coexist
within those New River Gorge ecosystems.