Fifty-four-year-old Rodney Bartgis, state director of the West Virginia Nature Conservancy, stood atop Cave Mountain in Pendleton County, an elevation of 2,777 feet.
“It almost looks like the Rocky Mountains,” said Bartgis. “This is the biggest uplift of limestone in the eastern mountains of the United States, and a lot of the rare plants and animals in this canyon are associated with this limestone,” he said.
The 200-acre mountaintop property on which Bartgis stood had been owned by the Puffenberger family since 1965. But last year they agreed to a conservation easement, negotiated by Bartgis, which protects it from development.
Perhaps more than any other person alive, Bartgis has helped to keep the “wild” in West Virginia.
He can point out several plants found nowhere else in eastern North America – Prairie Flax, the Death Camus lily, Indian Grass, Sideoats Grama and Big Bluestem.
Bartgis was the first person to identify these unusual species in West Virginia, among dozens of botanical discoveries he’s made in the state since he was a boy in Berkeley County.
He grew up on a small, 10-acre farm near Hedgesville, with cattle, hogs, gardens and a lot of work.
“Growing up in the country, which is now pretty much suburbia, gave me a chance to not only explore the countryside, but to tap into the knowledge of people that had grown up and been there for decades,” said Bartgis.
“So I could learn from my dad and my uncles and my granddad.”
Bartgis’ family has been farming in Berkeley County for ten generations. They’ve always felt close to the land.
“My paternal grandfather, who never made it past 8th grade, while dirt poor made his living from trapping and a little bit of dirt farming and from gathering herbs,” explained Bartgis. “He could show me in the woods, or along the creeks or in the fields, how certain plants grew in certain places.”
“If you’re looking for goldenseal, you’d look in one type of woods. If you’re looking for ginseng, in another, and so forth across the whole spectrum of plants that he would dig and sell.”
While still in high school Bartgis discovered the first White Showy Orchid in West Virginia.
It was a time when the Washington, DC suburbs were beginning to encroach further and further into the Eastern Panhandle.
“As a result, a lot of the places that I grew up hiking, botanizing and bird-watching on, were being chopped up and turned into houses,” said Bartgis. “So I also got interested in conservation.”
Bartgis went to Shepherd University to study biology, and then finished his Masters in plant ecology at West Virginia University.
Just after that The Nature Conservancy hired him to find unique and unusual places in the state that might be important to protect.
Those early years with The Nature Conservancy gave Bartgis the opportunity to explore most of the state – on foot – looking for rare plants, special habitats and unique natural areas.
A colleague at The Nature Conservancy, Andrea Brandon, echoes what many people say about Rodney’s encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world of West Virginia.
“You could blindfold Rodney Bartgis and put him on any mountaintop in the state and when you took off that blindfold, not only could Rodney identify every bird in the sky and every single plant and tree that’s growing on the ground, he could tell you by looking at his surroundings exactly where he’s at,” said Brandon.
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources vegetation ecologist, Elizabeth Byers, says most don’t know that West Virginia is a national hotspot of biodiversity.
“So protecting this is incredibly important,” said Byers.
“Among scientists, Rodney is universally respected. He is the person we go to when we have exhausted other resources, because he will very likely know the answer,” she said.
Along with colleagues at The Nature Conservancy, Bartgis has helped protect some of West Virginia’s most unique wild places, including areas in the New River Gorge, Canaan Valley, the Smoke Hole Canyon, Cheat Mountain, Cranberry Glades, Bear Rocks on the Dolly Sods, Panther Knob, and Pike Knob.
The Nature Conservancy works to preserve natural areas for many uses – biology, ecology, hunting, fishing, hiking and other recreational activities.
It takes the cooperation of land owners, donors, local, state and federal government and others to make it happen.
“We’ve protected about 120,000 acres of West Virginia over the 50 years,” said Bartgis of The Nature Conservancy. “That sounds like a lot, but in every decade there will probably be 300,000 or more acres of West Virginia converted from natural habitat to something else.”
Byers said Bartgis’ legacy will be a vast amount of protected area throughout the state.
“He’ll be leaving behind hundreds of species, thousands of acres of just sheer beauty, mystery, and wonder,” said Byers.
“He has an unbelievable legacy – most of it will be unsung, but it’s huge what he will leave.”
Rodney Bartgis is featured with others in the documentary Inspiring West Virginians, produced by Jean Snedegar with Senior Producer Suzanne Higgins.