Property "Rights" vs. People’s Rights

By Vivian Stockman and Sharon Dalton

"It’s private property" is the argument one most frequently hears in support of logging Blackwater Canyon. Allegheny Wood Products (AWP) and its supporters are attempting to portray Canyon advocates as people who desire the total usurpation of private-property rights.

In June, the Woodland Owners Association (WOA) circulated a memo from its secretary, Ed Murriner, who is also assistant state forester in the Division of Forestry. The memo, obviously worded to scare people into siding with the timber industry, states:

The misinformed environmental movement is renewing efforts to severely restrict or eliminate timber management. . . . A good example is the Blackwater Canyon situation where environmental groups are seeking ways to prevent a private owner from timbering. How long will supporters of sound resource management sit back and watch as their rights are slowly but surely taken away from them?

The memo may succeeded in putting a few people on the side of logging the Canyon, but any thoughtful and intelligent person knows that no one is trying "to severely restrict or eliminate timber management." Canyon advocates are simply saying that nature is already managing the timber in the canyon for the public good; human management can easily be applied in more private areas of the state.

The West Virginia Supreme Court will decide if the Canyon in question is ‘privately owned.’ Historically, the public had access to the Canyon for hunting, fishing, camping, kayaking, photography, sightseeing, and even for marriages on spectacular Lindy Point. Photographs of the Canyon have been circulated around the world in travel brochures, extolling and exemplifying the abundant natural beauty of West Virginia. Those facts are proof that the Canyon, in spirit and in practice, is a public domain.

The fact that the State Supreme Court has agreed to consider a suit claiming that the sale of the canyon was illegal proves that the transfer of the land involves much more than private-property rights.

Blackwater Canyon is important to all West Virginians as a source of tourism income because it is one of the last and best natural and wild places in the East. John Crites, owner of AWP, has said that West Virginia is important to him; let him give truth to those words by selling the Canyon into public ownership and purchasing timer land in less spectacular and biologically sensitive areas of the state. There's plenty of profit to be made elsewhere; the Blackwater Canyon can never be re-created.

Private property ‘is’ central to our American culture, but the good of the community as a whole has precedence over the good of the individual. That fact is the basis of the government's right of eminent domain; in the words of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, "The good of the many outweighs the good of the one, or of the few."

Also central to our American society is that some few places are so naturally beautiful and so spiritually refreshing that they should be preserved as they were created. President Theodore Roosevelt had the wisdom to recognize that, and so he established the National Park System. Surely, Blackwater Canyon is among those very few soul- satisfying places of natural beauty left in the development-saturated East, one of the few places that still has some wildness about it. Because it is such a very rare jewel, it is sacred and should be cherished and preserved. _