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(US IN) Eco-tourism becomes second nature September 11, 2005 9:14 AM

 
 
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By CHRISTINA TALCOTT
The Washington Post

Rustic wood cabins at the Bear Mountain Farm & Wilderness Retreat, built in part by carpentry students, are simply furnished with books and a coffeemaker.

Washington Post Photo/CHRISTINA TALCOTT

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 economic mainstays, 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 that people are coming to see now -- the mountains, the trees, the clean rivers -- will be around for a long time to come.

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.

"Eco-tourism" doesn't have to mean "exotic"; it really 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. 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.

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 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 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.

Enlarge graphic

The Washington Post Graphic/NATHANIEL VAUGHN KELSO




If you goWest Virginia Eco-Tourism Association: Saturday nature walks, plus tour packages and statewide lodging information; (800) 225-5982 or e-mail info@sustainablewv.org.

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.

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 cheerfully rode with me down the ski lift and walked with me around the lake, then up a steep w

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 September 11, 2005 9:16 AM

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, is a cluster of small log cabins and, at the end of a driveway, a larger house.

Tom Brody and Patti Reum, who call 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. They both are trained naturalists, and she teaches science at the local public school.

Brody and Reum have a few hiking trails on their property, and they often host cavers and bikers who need a place to sleep in between bouts of activity. But Reum says people tend to come for a restful escape: "We're not really adventure; we're more ... peaceful."

The four cabins are simply furnished, each with bookshelves of nature guides and extra blankets; the largest can sleep as many as five adults. The cabins have electricity but no bathrooms; nearby is a communal bathhouse, 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.

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 a table and 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.

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."

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