A team of researchers at West Virginia University want to better understand the cliffs surrounding the New River Gorge and what attracts visitors to the world-class climbing area in order to preserve it.

WVU was awarded a $235,000 grant from the National Park Service to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the cliffs in the New River Gorge National River.

The three-year, interdisciplinary project, which began in 2010, includes an assessment of geological and botanical components, as well as a comprehensive assessment of recreational users of the cliff areas.

Leading the team is Dave Smaldone, associate professor of recreation, parks and tourism resources in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. He is joined by Steven Kite, associate professor of geology and geography, and Amy Hessl, associate professor of geography, both in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

According to Smaldone, until now the majority of the cliff ecosystems of the national river were geologically and biologically unexplored. In addition, visitor use of the cliff resources had never been systemically studied.

“This is a world-class climbing destination,” he said. “It’s important for us to understand why hikers and climbers visit here and the types of activities they do.”

To gain that understanding, Smaldone employed a variety of assessment tools to gauge visitor knowledge, attitudes, management preferences and recreational impacts regarding the cliffs.

“Some preliminary findings reveal that climbers are more likely to be repeat visitors to the river than hikers,” he said. “We found differences in attitudes and management preferences between climbers and hikers. In addition, differences were found between more finely segmented groups of visitors, such as locals and non-locals, first time and repeat climbers, and so forth.”

Further analysis of these segmented groups will be used to help the park develop targeted educational materials to deliver key messages to specific types of audiences.

Over the last 28 years, annual recreational visits to the river have risen from 230,000 to over 1.1 million. Rock climbing has also become increasingly popular within the park, with more than 1,600 established climbing routes.

“With an increase in hikers, climbers and other visitors, the National Park Service was concerned that impacts to the cliff areas may also be increasing,” Smaldone said. “Certain vegetative communities and rock outcrops are known to be susceptible to human impacts. If we know what types of habitats are growing there we’re able to better educate visitors on the importance of the areas, and how to minimize their impact.”

Kite’s effort focused on the geologic components of the cliffs and used mapping techniques to describe the extent of the cliffs and associated bedrock petrology, stratigraphy and structural geology.

For the botanical component, Hessl surveyed, inventoried and mapped the cliff vegetation and their associated communities, including the plants, bryophytes, and lichens. Also assisting in the efforts was Susan Studlar, visiting associate professor of biology and curator of bryophyte and lichen for the WVU Herbarium.

“We found a variety of species that were thought to be uncommon are quite common,” Smaldone said. “What’s most exciting for plant and lichen folks, however, is we also found unique and rare species. For example, some rare plants included Carex and danthonia species, as well as Dusky Rock moss, an uncommon bryophyte that is endemic to West Virginia.”

Rare lichens found include cliff gold dust (Chrysothrix susquehannensis), previously unknown in West Virginia, and Frosted rock tripe (Umbilicaria americana), which was initially thought to have been eliminated from the area.

While cliffs have often been thought of as places with little plant diversity, the botanical team found this was not true. In all, 139 species of vascular plants, 130 species of lichens, and 93 species of bryophytes were identified growing on the tops, bottoms or cliff faces in the New River Gorge.

Now in the final stages of data analysis, the team will partner with Penn State University, where the data will be compiled into one final synthesis report.

This summer and fall Kathryn McKenney, a graduate student in the recreation, parks and tourism resources program, will use the gathered data to develop targeted educational materials for use inside the park.

While the exact materials have yet to be determined, Smaldone believes there will be a variety of products including brochures and signs as well as interpretive projects targeted for specific visitor groups.

“Since hikers and climbers access the area for different reasons, it’s important for us to determine how we can best increase awareness of the uniqueness of the cliff resources and minimize the impact on them,” Smaldone said.

Smaldone expects initial educational materials to be ready for distribution sometime this fall, while the full report on their findings will be prepared in 2013.



CONTACT: Lindsay Willey, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design
304-293-2381, Lindsay.Willey@mail.wvu.edu

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