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TrekEast Blog 40: Ohio’s State and National Forests and Highlands Nature Sanctuary

Skirting the Edge of Appalachia

Mid-June 2011

Ohio is not reducible to Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.  Although farms, roads, towns, and cities have long occupied most of this state, significant wild areas remain in the south and east of the state, where the Appalachian Mountains descend toward the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes.  Two decades ago, Reed Noss proposed a visionary Edge of Appalachia preserve system for this little-known part of Ohio; and thanks to conservation officials acquiring thousands of acres for state and national forests; The Nature Conservancy creating a sizeable Edge of Appalachia Preserve; and other wildlands philanthropists piecing together the Highlands Nature Sanctuary, much of this vision is coming to be.

I approached Ohio’s Edge, or Arc, of Appalachia from the south, riding north from Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky.  (Names in this region can be confusing.  ‘Edge of Appalachia’ is a term Reed used many years ago in his visionary wildlands proposal.  ‘Edge of Appalachia’ is also now the name of the large TNC preserve in southern Ohio.  ‘Arc of Appalachia’ is almost more metaphorical than descriptive, suggesting an ark for biodiversity and also an arc of habitat on the edge of the Appalachians, and also the name of the non-profit group working to protect this area.  ‘Highlands Nature Sanctuary’ is the biggest privately protected part of the Arc.) 

Conrad Reining of the Wildlands Network had suggested I scout the gap between the D Boon National Forest and Ohio’s Shawnee State Forest.  I was pleasantly surprised with what I found:  much of the land between the two public forests is sparsely settled and still forested, too, though predominantly unprotected private lands.  I suggest, then, that the US Forest Service request an expansion of the Daniel Boone National Forest proclamation boundaries to extend the area open for conservation acquisitions clear to the Ohio River.  Protecting as much as possible of the western edge of the Appalachians, at least from Pine Mountain in southeast Kentucky through the northern unit of Wayne National Forest in Ohio, would be a great contribution to an Eastern Wildway.

My explorations of Shawnee and Pike State Forests and Wayne National Forest were brief but somewhat encouraging.  All these public forest units are fragmented by roads and inholdings, but with work and time and conservation acquisition money, they can be made whole again.  Shawnee State Forest seems particularly promising, as it still has big trees and is not so riddled with inholdings as are many public forest units in the East.  Moreover, the good folks at the Arc of Appalachia are working to add buffer lands there.

Cycling north from Shawnee State Forest, I was warmly greeted at Ridgeview Farm, part of Highlands Nature Sanctuary, by Nancy Stranahan and her partner Bruce Lombardo.  Along with Larry Henry, Nancy’s first partner in this bold conservation endeavor, a modestly paid but highly skilled staff of six, and impressive teams of volunteers, Nancy has put Ohio’s nearly lost and forgotten mixed mesophytic forest back on the map.  In a growing system southwest of Chillicothe, the Arc of Appalachia has secured over 5,000 acres in 14 preserves, in an area many people had written off as lost to agriculture and development.  (For a fuller, richer account of this success story, read Tom Butler’s WILDLANDS PHILANTHROPY, which also includes gorgeous photos of Highlands Nature Sanctuary.)

Nancy has an infectious passion for the temperate deciduous forest biome, and reminds us through publications such as the Arc of Appalachia’s land report Wings that those of us living in the eastern United States, from Minnesota to Texas to Florida to Maine, share a forest home, and it is the most endangered of the world’s 14 great biomes.  Arc work is as much about reconnecting people with Nature – helping them identify with their Appalachian forest home – as it is about restoring and reconnecting wildlife habitats. 

Indeed, Highlands Nature Sanctuary is very visitor-friendly, with many miles of hiking trails, guest cottages available for rent, and the world’s best (and first) Appalachian Forest Museum, featuring stunning artistic renderings of the great forest we Euro-Americans mowed down and now must help regrow.  The Arc of Appalachia’s land preservation and ecological education work is complemented by historic preservation.  Southern Ohio has the densest concentration of Native American earthworks in the country, largely from the Hopewell culture of a couple thousand years ago; and some of these are on lands now protected as parts of the Arc of Appalachia.  Especially important archaeologically are the Serpent Mount and Fort Hill, both now owned by the Ohio Historical Society and conserved within Highlands Nature Sanctuary.

On my visit to Highlands Nature Sanctuary, Nancy and Bruce and I spent as much time talking – about how to link efforts like this with similar conservation efforts up and down the Appalachians, to create an Eastern Wildway – as we spent walking.  Still, in a few short walks in the woods, they introduced me to many lovely neighbors: wild yam (pictured right; wild licorice; wild hydrangea, blooming in a spray of white; bulblet fern, so ineffably winsome; liverworts; waste-high scouring rush, growing in flood plain of a Rocky Fork tributary; old northern white-cedars growing on walls of Rocky Fork Gorge, a yellow-billed cuckoo hiding among them; Sulivantia, a rare endemic plant that grows on the wet dolomite walls of this region; and more hardwood species than I can remember.  On Ridgeview Farm, Bruce introduced me to the call of Henslow’s sparrow (pictured left), a subtle ‘tshlik’ that the males nonetheless belt out proudly!  Bruce also introduced me to their barn owl neighbor, preening itself high on a rafter and looking as much monkey as bird.

The Arc of Appalachia is not yet as wild as it needs to be, founders Nancy Stranahan and Larry Henry would be the first to admit.  Beavers have returned to the area’s streams, but otters are scarce or absent; bears have not yet returned in viable numbers; cougars and wolves are not around to govern deer numbers, though coyotes have moved in and are helping; bison and elk and earlier mega-herbivores are long gone; American chestnut trees persist only as saplings, which succumb to the exotic blight before maturing; and the passenger pigeons that roosted in masses in the great chestnut trees are gone forever.  As in almost all fragmented landscapes, invasive species – including garlic mustard and Asian honeysuckles — are a growing problem.  Fortunately, the hemlock wooly adelgid has not yet infected the gorgeous old hemlocks of the Rocky Fork, though it may just be a matter of time …

Saddened but undaunted by such losses, the good forest denizens protecting Highlands Nature Sanctuary celebrate their successes:  Wildflower blooms in April attract droves of viewers and pollinators; salamanders and skinks abound; beaver and coyote and red and gray foxes are again playing their big parts in Appalachian ecology; forest interior birds, like hooded and Kentucky and black & white and cerulean warblers are nesting here again.  The cerulean warbler sings an especially happy note for the return of the great mixed mesophytic forest in the Arc of Appalachia. This sky-blue songbird has declined throughout its breeding range in the Eastern Deciduous Forest, but Nancy & Bruce are seeing and hearing more of them now than ever before.  May the cerulean song greet the ears of a cougar come home ere many generations!

How you can help:  Join the Arc of Appalachia as a donor and/or volunteer.  Get inspired by their amazing conservation successes and undertake similar habitat and human reconnection efforts in your area. 

For the Wild,



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