Somewhere along the 50-mile ridge of Cheat Mountain, one of West Virginia’s tallest and most rugged peaks, Paul and Lucas Kinder are behind the controls of a 18,000-pound excavator. The director of the Natural Resource Analysis Center at West Virginia University and his son, a geospatial project manager and master’s graduate in energy environments, are toppling trees and rolling enormous boulders through streams in the Shavers Fork watershed, and while it may look like destruction, their strategic work is done in the name of ecological restoration.

"At five miles wide, Cheat Mountain has more land above 4,500 feet than all the mountains in New York, Vermont and Maine combined and was once home to the country’s largest red spruce forest south of Maine. These slow-growing conifers live only at West Virginia’s highest altitudes, and, allegedly, the virgin forests were once so thick and dark that you couldn’t read a newspaper beneath the canopy. That changed when, over a century ago, the logging industry arrived and went to work removing 90% of the state’s red spruce forests via railroads like the one established in the mill town of Cass. According to Kinder, the spruce harvest took a toll not only on the trees but on the watershed, too. Shavers Fork flows down the top of Cheat Mountain and is the largest high-elevation river east of the Mississippi. Its tributaries run through what’s left of the forests; deforestation had profound impacts. Soil nutrients were washed away, and spruce didn’t grow back along the bank, which in turn made water temperatures too warm for native brook trout.

backhoe in wooded area, two men's headshots in circular cutouts

“These streams are all anthropogenically impaired because of railroads and logging, and also mining,” Kinder said. “Back then, we artificially straightened the streams and we bound them up by railroad grades. That’s led to excessively shallow and wide streams with a lack of pool habitat and also a lack of wood, which is overhead cover for brook trout.” Cover protects fish from avian predators and keeps water temperatures low, an essential component of a native trout stream. Moreover, the tributaries of a stream like Shavers Fork are where brook trout spawn. Decades of data confirm the value of varied physical features, in streams of any size.

“These are the capillaries of our river systems, and they are impaired,” Kinder said. “It's hard to see that from an untrained eye. It looks beautiful, but it doesn’t support the life that it should. There’s been a change in attitude that instead of cleaning these streams out, the more wooded, the better off they are. They function better.”

Kinder has partnered with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, whose mission includes providing exploration, conservation, protection and enjoyment of the state’s natural resources. “Trout stream habitat restoration represents a synthesis of conservation and recreation,” Kinder said. “It’s a win-win. Stream habitat enhancements, in the context of broader watershed restoration efforts, become more self-sustaining as natural processes return or reset to pre-disturbance conditions.”

topo map of Upper Shavers Fork of Cheat including tributaries; also drone photo of muddy river in summertime

The project calls for the restoration of two miles of stream per year on public and private lands in West Virginia and it’s not an easy task. The researchers spent part of the summer of 2022 adding around 50 new structures to First Fork, a tributary of Shavers Fork. They used heavy machinery to strategically place large rocks, stumps and fallen trees in and around the stream and followed a year later with similar restoration efforts on Beaver Creek, another tributary. These new features will create deep pools and riffles, and the changes should eventually restore the natural, undulating curves of the stream bed.

The early stages of restoration can seem chaotic. At first glance, the sites look more like construction zones than peaceful mountain brooks. Heavy equipment plows through the forest, and the bank appears disrupted and muddy. When the work is complete, however, it’s difficult to distinguish the features created by humans from those created by nature.

streambed before banks are improved; springtime shot with sparse green leaves in background

Every step of the process faced challenges. Some streams in the watershed are flanked by old logging roads, making access for the excavators easier. Others are not, so the team had to create new roads. When restoration is complete, these routes will remain for hiking and mountain biking access, and riders from nearby Snowshoe Mountain Resort will be able to wind their way through the newly restored watershed.

Drones also come in handy out in the field. Kinder said using LiDAR — which employs lasers to create 3D models — and taking photos from above help with conceptual planning and permitting before the project. Post-construction, the drones capture as-built conditions. The group has learned to refine their methods as they’ve gone along.

“In the past, we would normally cut trees and use them for structure,” said Lucas Kinder, who recalled learning to run the machinery on the job. “But we switched gears these last two years to pushing trees over and keeping the root wads. It adds weight to the structures and keeps them in place better. The root wads make good habitat. If you can get them submerged right, they help add to the hydraulic function of the structures within the stream channel.” Kinder and the researchers work hard to recreate natural features in hopes that nature will follow suit.

Often, it does.

Along Beaver Creek, near the top of Cheat Mountain, they constructed a small dam, behind

streambed with improved banks; summertime shot, green trees in background

which a trout-friendly pool formed. Within months, beavers arrived and built a dam of their own. This much larger structure flooded the surrounding area, creating wetlands and deepwater habitat. Beaver ponds improve water quality, offer habitat for a variety of wildlife — including trout — and increase biodiversity.

Similarly, the researchers are concerned with the entire stream corridor, including riparian [stream banks] and floodplain areas. They hope to assist with red spruce restoration too; after the rocks have been rolled and the trees submerged, they plant delicate saplings along the trails and near the bank. Kinder says the project exposes students to many disciplines within the field of restoration, and he brings graduate students to visit the restoration sites when he can. Even those not working on the project get to learn how to safely run a chainsaw, excavator or skid steer, skills that will come in handy for future habitat restoration work, which is still needed in the Shavers Fork watershed.

We're definitely making better trout habitat. And we're impacting recreational value. But we're also giving the students and young people an opportunity to pull from a lot of different disciplines.

— Lucas Kinder

"You can't just look at a stream from a biological perspective. There's a lot more to this system. And it’s awesome to be able to contribute, to move the needle just a little bit.”