Back To The Future
By Mike Johnson
“Some people look for a beautiful place. Others make a place beautiful.”
-- Hazrat Inayat Khan, spiritualist
First, there was a vast forest punctuated with wetlands, streams, small openings, and maybe an isolated patch of prairie. The only features that would have broken the mosaic of trees were the Cuyahoga and the Little Cuyahoga Rivers near Akron, Ohio. Located at the confluence of these two waterways, Valley View would have sported a rare opening in the tree canopy. The area has lived many lives over the past two hundred years. In fact, archaeologists and historians at Summit Metro Parks are presently investigating a small neighborhood that once existed in the northern section of the property and a possible boatyard that might have constructed ships for Commodore Perry in the War of 1812. The area was once a dairy farm and for the last 40 years has been a golf course. Each of these incarnations is a story of its own, but I would like to share what I’ve learned so far during the ecological restoration of this landscape.
Step 1: Plan for land.
In 1925, the park district hired the internationally famous Olmsted Brothers to develop the first master plan, and this comprehensive land-acquisition strategy has driven Summit Metro Parks for nearly 100 years. The Olmsted Brothers saw the value of the land, and the park district has been buying land around this area for decades. The acquisition of Valley View Golf Course was the crowning jewel in a contiguous line of natural areas along the Cuyahoga River. Gorge Metro Park, Cascade Valley Metro Park, and Sand Run Metro Park are now joined through Valley View to create a nearly 2,000-acre natural area.
Step 2: Let your mission guide you.
Summit Metro Parks is a district with a strong focus on nature, wildlife, and the environment. Of course, there is always room for recreation, and anyone who has ever worked in parks knows there can sometimes be friction between the competing goals of recreation and conservation.
Step 3: Talk to your friends.
Golf courses throughout the United States are closing right and left. Summit Metro is not the first park district to restore an area like this. The district contacted agencies at Cleveland Metroparks and Geauga Park District to learn from their experiences. One of the best things about the parks in Ohio is that there is a network of collaborators, and I am always impressed how well we play together. These relationships saved us time and set us on the right track.
Step 4: Do your homework.
The concept plan was based on in-depth studies of the landscape, historical records, soil data, topography, adjacent similar habitats, and reference reaches. The district would be working with streams and wetlands, so we utilized methods of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to conduct jurisdictional wetlands delineations and quality assessments. Using the language and tools of these regulatory agencies helped move this project through the permitting process.
Step 5: Shop it around.
Once a concept plan is complete, it is time to start selling it to partnering agencies and possible funders. We were fortunate to work with the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern (AOC), which evaluated the restoration project and recommended it as a priority for the eventual restoration of the Cuyahoga River. Being recognized by the AOC (and others) helped with the eventual funding of this project, resulting in restoration of over 3,000 linear feet of headwater stream, 30 acres of wetlands, and more than 100 acres of forest.
Step 6: Pick your battles.
As ecologists working on the restoration of this area, we found ourselves in an ironic position: we wanted to cut down hundreds of magnificent trees while the rest of the park staff wanted to save them. As is often the case with golf courses, Valley View was planted with over 400 magnificent, 100-feet-tall Norway spruce trees to define the fairways. While these trees are truly beautiful, they are not native and have become invasive. Our mission as a conservation organization directed us to remove them in preparation for the restoration of a natural area, which was not an easy sell.
Step 7: Build consensus.
When it came to the removal of the Norway spruce, many legitimate voices within the park district raised concerns and lobbied to preserve the trees for their beauty and for the public’s enjoyment. Because we felt this was an important part of the restoration work, we were willing to compromise. The former golf course owners also planted a good number of Colorado spruce, and while not native to Ohio, they are at least native to North America, so we allowed them to remain. We also mapped out all the native trees that would remain, including hundreds of oaks, white pines, hemlocks, and sycamores.
Step 8: Let the team work.
The conservation department defined what ecosystems would be most appropriate, specified what seed would be planted, identified the general locations for restored streams and wetlands, and spent almost two years managing invasive species, removing turf grass, and preparing the site for restoration. The department wrote management plans and helped with grant applications and permits. But when it came to construction and integrating recreational amenities, we took a supporting role and followed the lead of our counterparts in the planning, community engagement, and operations departments. While there is a tremendous amount of funding available for ecological restoration, these funds are complicated to obtain and even more complex to manage. Summit Metro Parks is fortunate to have on staff skilled grant writers and a finance department that has never lost a nickel.
Step 9: Adapt to the circumstances.
No matter how much money is available, it will not be enough to do everything needed or desired. So, we divided the project into phases! Phase 1 of the restoration was funded with over $1 million from Clean Ohio Conservation Fund. Although this was a generous sum, it was about $2 million short of what we really needed. Summit Metro Parks overcame this financial shortfall by getting creative. We divided every aspect of the project into many smaller units and utilized in-house talent as much as possible. Part of the original plan called for the planting of $900,000 of potted trees. Instead, the park district hosted a citizen nut planting. Over the course of two days, 600 volunteers planted more than 120,000 native nuts and seeds. The germination rate the following spring was estimated at about 50 percent. Not only did this adaptive approach save a great deal of money, but it was more successful than a conventional tree planting would have been.
Step 10: Celebrate success!
Print, television, every type of social media, and carnival barking has been utilized to share the success of this project, with more to come. The Summit Metro Parks Foundation and Friends of Summit Metro Parks have hosted behind-the-scenes tours that have helped build enthusiasm for future development of the site. When complete, the area will support wildlife where golf course greens once dominated. Streams, long buried in culvert pipes, have been exhumed and flow free again over the landscape. It will eventually support an event center, a shelter, a boathouse, and access to the Cuyahoga River. There will be pedestrian trails and a trailhead on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. We can’t wait to see these plans through to fruition.
Mike Johnson is the chief of conservation for Summit Metro Parks in Ohio. Reach him at (330) 867-5511.