The article below is reprinted by permission of
The Morgan Messenger
© 2004

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eco-tourism in Berkeley Springs West Virginiaby Carol Reece

Kris and Dave O’Brien wanted a way to make a living far from the bustle and noise of Baltimore. So, 14 years ago, they purchased about 80 acres east of Berkeley Springs near Cherry Run, the old Mary Mason farm.

Many people would have torn down the original log house and built a new place, but the former antique store owners felt it was important to renovate and preserve a bit of history, rather than build new home on undeveloped land. The house is now a cozy home, but it took a year just to make it livable.

Next, Dave O’Brien turned his attention to building two cabins away from the house as vacation rental properties, while Kris brought in income by teaching in Berkeley County. The resulting cabins are unique and give renters a quiet, country experience with dark, starry nights.

As time went on, the O’Briens found themselves more and more interested in recycling and conservation. At the same time their guests were becoming more specific in what they wanted out of a night in the country. This coincided with a nationwide and worldwide trend known as Ecotourism.

Dave O’Brien welcomed this trend and initiated the Morgan County Ecotourism Association, a division of Travel Berkeley Springs three years ago. There are now about eight members. “When we first got here, we figured we would just supply alternative lodging, but as we became more interested in living a green lifestyle, we realized that promoting ecotourism would be a way of increasing business as well,” he said. “We get to do a a nice thing for nature and have a business, too.”

Kris O’Brien enumerated what their guests expect out of an ecotourism cabin rental. They want to know what the O’Briens are doing to conserve their acreage, whether they allow the cutting of trees and what they do to provide wildlife habitat. “The most important thing we do though, is to try to educate our guests on conservation issues,” she said.

Not easy
Nurturing and protecting the land is not an easy task. It’s an every-day, all-the -time job.
In addition to the daily maintenance of the cabins and the housecleaning after guests depart, the O’Briens compost food scraps, take care of overabundant insect and plant populations without resorting to pesticides or herbicides, and recycle glass, paper, metals and plastics. Their home doesn’t have the typical septic system. The used dish and clothes-washing water, known as gray water, is piped into a holding tank and used to water the flower gardens.

They conserve more water by using water-free composting toilets that eventually create soil from the waste. After the addition of peat moss and cedar chips, the nutrient rich material is used to feed the flower beds. The process takes about three months. The O’Briens are vegetarians, and the remains from their fruits and vegetables get recycled in the compost pile.

“We have big compost piles over here,” Kris O’Brien said. “Recycling and composting is the least an ecotourism business can do. But we need to be constantly improving to satisfy our sharpest ecotourists. One of our guests asked us why we used a regular-sized refrigerator in the cabins, so we purchased some secondhand, half-sized models, which use less electricity.”

A fun, yet environmentally friendly feature of the cabins is the antique claw foot bathtub on the rear porch. Filling the tub as needed, rather than keeping the typical hot tub full and heated at all times, saves a great deal of electricity.

Consumerism, no
The O’Briens do a lot of their shopping at second-hand stores, and buy very little new. Their cars are older models. They grow a lot of their own food and take short road trip vacations to conserve gasoline. They often explore other parts of West Virginia, which they find “incredibly beautiful.” They don’t own a clothes dryer, dishwasher or garbage disposal.

“Our lifestyle is really part of ecotourism and is to geared to the conservation of natural resources,” Kris O’Brien said. “Our friends say we ‘walk the walk, and not just talk the talk,’ and wonder how we can live this way.”

ecotourism in Berkeley Springs West Virginia

Pond & nature trails
The one-acre pond on the property is not only scenic, but also provides recreational activities. It is also ecologically sound. “You can drink the water,” said Dave O’Brien. The clean pond is partially due to the population of thousands of snails that live in the water. They multiplied over a 13-year period from the four dozen originally introduced by the O’Briens. The snails eat algae as do the resident bottom-feeding Large Mouth Bass, Carp and Koi fish. The bass also eat nuisance Blue Gills. Fishing is discouraged to keep the right ecological balance in the pond.

The O’Briens have built two miles of nature trails on their bowl-shaped acreage. The paths weave around the pond and through the woods, past streams and the sumac shrubs they have encouraged to keep down the weedy Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus) population.

“Sumac berries are an important source of food for birds, especially in winter,” said Kris O’Brien, a Master Gardener. She often leads her guests on nature tours of the property pointing out wildlife and trees along the way. A grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service enabled the couple to establish wildlife habitats. Kris O’Brien explained that so many local forests have been taken over by trees and shrubs, making it difficult for ground-nesting birds like Whippoorwills and Chuck Wills Widows to find a place to hatch their eggs.

With a great deal of sweat, they tore out multiflora roses and honeysuckle and planted native grasses such as Big Blue Stem, Switch Grass and Indian Grass. The typical lawn creates an impenetrable carpet that small animals find it difficult to tunnel through and doesn’t provide good nesting sites. Native grasses, however, grow in clumps so small mammals can move freely, which in turn allows raptors to find their food more easily. “Originally there were prairies of these native grasses in Morgan County, but none are left,” Kris O’Brien said.

Though they are mostly self-employed (Kris fills in with substitute teaching at times) and have to provide their own retirement benefits, and sometimes worry during slow periods about having enough rentals, they are happy with their life style. “Even on a bad day, I can float on my pond on an inner tube and realize I have a great life,” Dave O’Brien said. “Just making money is just not that important. To us, teaching people why they should conserve the environment is just as important.”

“Our alternative lifestyle is a healthy one for us,” Kris O’Brien said. “It promotes good health for our bodies, mind and spirits since we live relatively free from chemical pollutants. And we live in such a beautiful place.”

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