KEEN Effect Grantee Spotlight: West Virginia Rivers Coalition


Photo credit: Chad Cordell

When not in Charleston fighting for higher drinking water quality standards or monitoring toxic contaminants in local waters, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (WVRC) is using a KEEN Effect grant to bring local families out for a weekend of adventure and outdoor ethics in the Birthplace of Rivers. As a section of the Monongahela National Forest, this area does not benefit from strong environmental protections, but is rich in biodiversity and critical to many watersheds in the eastern United States. To learn more about how WVRC is helping our public lands, I got on the phone with Matt Kearns, WVRC’s Public Lands Campaign spokesman.

Not many people have ever heard of the Birthplace of Rivers. What will people discover if they visit?

The Birthplace of Rivers is a high elevation headwaters area that is the origin of 6 different watershed drainages. The hillsides are steep and filled with rhododendron thickets, the valleys are carved out by cold water trout streams, and the Forest Service is working hard to bring back its historic red spruce forests. The Falls of Hills Creek  (West Virginia’s 2nd highest waterfall) is one of many notable attractions, and it goes underground through karst formations and pops out a few miles away. Cranberry Glades is another notable region, being a high elevation valley that stays cooler than its surrounding areas all year long, and so has flora usually found in Maine or New York that was pushed south and trapped there after the last glaciation! Roaming through all of that are tons of black bears…

So many people, not just West Virginians, have a stake in this iconic place. The headwaters in the Monongahela National Forest drain from the forests and mountaintops out to the Potomac, to WashingtonPittsburgh, into the Ohio at Pittsburgh and then the Mississippi River. In the Birthplace of Rivers, you can’t separate the lands from the waters from the people which use this water in their everyday lives.


Photo credit: Chad Cordell

Speaking of the people, March is time for Spring Break for a lot people on the East Coast. Does this area offer a place for vacationers looking for some solitude or wild adventure?

Great recreation opportunities are everywhere here. The Cranberry Wilderness area – which is the largest wilderness tract managed by the Forest Service in the East and one of the largest slices of wild Appalachia left on Earth – is 50,000 acres of amazing backpacking opportunities. Outside the wilderness area, the mountain biking is spectacular. The more casual tourist can find plenty of accessible, short hikes to waterfalls or through spruce forests on the Highlands Scenic Highway along Cranberry’s eastern rim, as well as ample RV and tent campgrounds. Many sportsmen hunt deer, turkey and grouse, and anglers enjoy both stocked rivers and some smaller tributaries with native brook trout.


Photo credit: Chad Cordell

Your “Best of Birthplace” weekend event is the third weekend of May. What kind of things will people learn on this weekend adventure?

At the “Best of Birthplace” Weekend we will talk to participants about Leave No Trace principles and about how this is where the region’s drinking water starts. It’s hard not to care about a place if you’ve not only had a good time and are interested in going again, but also see the connection between how this place is treated and your own access to clean water. Recreation and conservation are one in the same. If our system of public lands are entirely eroded and sold off, we can’t even start the conversation of conservation. It’s our hope that we can get people out and they can have a good time (on us and on KEEN), and learn about the ecosystem services that the West Virginia headwaters provide – from clean water to clean air.



Photo credit: Chad Cordell

Why are public lands protections and the Birthplace of Rivers so important to West Virginia?

Our state has a complicated history with extraction: coal, timber, gas – but we bill ourselves as Wild and Wonderful. I think this is our biggest strength, and one of the best things we can offer that sets up apart from other Mid-Atlantic states. There’s minimal development here, and the Birthplace of Rivers is a unique destination for outdoor adventure activities, so come on out and enjoy yourselves!

Thanks so much for your time, Matt! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

KEEN’s yellow Live Monumental bus has come through our area a few times, and we need to keep the momentum alive. We want to get people out there to celebrate the Birthplace of Rivers area and know it as an iconic landscape. Although the policy challenges are constantly changing, we are going to continue to advocate for the land long term. We need to keep this landscape intact from sell-off, contamination and development. We are a headwaters state, and we want to make sure that these headwaters are clean for fish and communities throughout the whole watershed.

To learn more about the important work that WVRC is doing to connect local communities to their waterscapes, as well as their extensive work monitoring pollutants and guiding state water quality policies, go to And if you support public lands protections, please contact your local representatives to let your voice be heard.


Author’s note:

I am an environmental anthropologist, outdoor enthusiast, and KEEN employee travelling the country, connecting with KEEN fans, and advocating for humans and environments under threat. As a brand built for the outdoors, KEEN also feels a responsibility to protect and preserve the places we play. One way we do that is by supporting non-profit organizations through our KEEN Effect Grants. This new monthly blog series highlights just some of our 2016 grantees and their missions:  invasive species in the backcountry, diversity in our National Parks, companies leading with environmental values, and the next generation of environmental leaders.
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– Mark Steinbuck, from somewhere in the Great North Woods