By CHRISTINA TALCOTTThe 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 email@example.com.
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