Karen Bonner
Chair, Tucker County Planning Commission
Canaan Valley, West Virginia

In Canaan Valley, against the backdrop of West Virginia’s largest wetlands complex, Karen Bonner, winner in the Volunteer Leadership category, volunteers her time and energies to protect the Valley’s ecological integrity. Over 3,000 feet above sea level, in the Appalachians, the 55-square mile watershed of Canaan Valley encompasses 6,700 acres of diverse and fragile wetlands — 9 percent of the state’s total acreage of vegetated wetlands. The 23 botanically distinct wetlands types and 40, distinct plant communities are unique relic boreal habitats. In 1974, these characteristics led Congress to designate the northern half of the Valley a National Natural Landmark.

In order to address and resolve potential conflict between economic growth and the important ecosystem, the Tucker County Planning Commission studies and advises t he County Commission land use decisions. Karen Bonner has been involved on the commission since 1984 and has served as the chair since 1990. In 1989, she was one of the principal forces behind the initiative to develop the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which includes recommendations for innovative ways to protect the northern half of the Valley from over-development while not overtaxing other residents. As co-chair of the zoning committee, she was a principal architect of the original Canaan Valley Zoning Ordinance, which recognizes the importance of the wetlands complex and surrounding natural resources in the Valley.

In a climate where outside interference is shunned, Bonner was instrumental in forming the Canaan Valley Task Force, a partnership between several levels of government and the local community, formed in 1990. The task force is working to define and implement strategies to protect the Valley’s unique ecosystem and balance the needs of the local community. The task force is composed of representatives from state and federal agencies, local government, business and development interests, conservation and recreational interest groups, landowner groups, and Valley residents.

Bonner’s leadership on the task force has been instrumental in creating an open dialogue that has led to a number of resource protection initiatives. These initiatives involve habitat conservation, sustainable growth, real estate development, and outdoor recreation, including off-road vehicle use. On a related effort, Bonner led county efforts to investigate the opportunities, benefits, and economic impacts associated with creation of a national wildlife refuge in Canaan Valley. As president of the planning commission, she ran public meetings on the refuge proposal, many of which were very contentious and involved neighbors, friends, and coworkers. She also worked to examine over 35 existing national wildlife refuges to gain insight into local perceptions of refuge impacts and economic benefits.

Bonner’s research and active participation in numerous public meetings led the planning commission to support the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Bonner subsequently met with West Virginia’s delegation in the U.S. Congress to express that support. Her efforts demonstrated great resolve in the face of deep-rooted anti-government sentiment and widespread apprehension that the refuge would stymie economic growth. Subsequently, Congress approved the refuge and included initial appropriations in the 1994 federal budget.

In addition, Bonner chairs the task force subcommittee that is developing a basin-wide plan to address wastewater treatment, part of which includes the use of constructed wetlands. Her efforts led to the award of an EPA grant that is being used to develop specific plans for these constructed wetlands. Bonner is also one of the founders of the Canaan Valley Landowners Association and remains active in that organization as its treasurer. She chaired the Tucker County Blue Ribbon Committee that developed long-term plans for secondary and elementary education, and she was a member of the Tucker County Development Authority.

— John Forren, U.S. EPA Region 3