After six solid hours at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus digging through over-stuffed archive boxes of fat file folders containing thousands of pieces of paper, I called it a day. My head was spinning and I needed air and sun. It was only 3:00pm so I took the time to drive 30 minutes to the till plains of Western Ohio and check out Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, a whopping 7,000 acre conservation gem of prairie and oak savanna.
Ohio's Metropark system is, without a doubt, the most highly respected regional park system in the country. Leaders in ecological restoration, conservation, partnerships, and outdoor/environmental education, for each major region in the state maintains a unique grouping of parks, protected landscapes, and public spaces. Central Ohio Metroparks is comprised of nineteen units that range in size and scope from historic farms, downtown birding corridors, public gardens, and large swaths of conservation properties. Battelle Darby Creek is a beautiful example of partners in agriculture, conservation, restoration ecology, and public support. I only had a few hours of fading sunlight to enjoy just a fraction of what this park entails.
|The new Battelle Darby Creek Nature Center - built into a glacial till slope.|
I stopped at the new nature center first. I really could have stayed the whole time there talking to staff about it's off-the-grid systems and beautiful hillside contoured design, but the sun was casting long shadows so I quickly grabbed a map and flew out the door. On my way out one of the attendants said to join them at the wet prairie at sunset for short eared owls! You bet! Of course I had to go see Big Darby Creek, a designated Wild and Scenic River. I could hear it long before I saw it churning away through the valley. The snow and ice melt these past few days has brought the river into the bottom woods. It was fast and broad and a little muddy.
|Big Darby Creek muscles its way into the woods.|
The park manages a combination of public spaces (picnic and play grounds), prairie remnants, reclaimed agricultural land, forest, and oak savannah. The natural ecosystems that were found here before farmers claimed the prairie in the 1820s consisted of 350 square miles of wet prairie and oak savannah that existed for over 6,000 years prior to settlement. The flat till plains between Big and Little Darby Creeks flourished with immense savannah oaks and prairie plants and animals, many of which are now extinct. But there are clues to what those animals must have been like found in some of the plants here. The honey locust, found in profusion along the creek hillsides is a Pleistocene survivor, and with its huge bundles of sharp thorns sprouting dagger-like straight up the trunk it appears out of place in today's somewhat subdued environment. It evolved this defense, however, to thwart browsing giant sloths and mastodons which disappeared with the spread of human hunters.
|No sloths allowed!|
In 1976 Metro Parks began a full scale restoration of the major ecological landscapes found in the till plains region. Farming had eliminated all but small remnants of original habitat and it took some time to develop relationships with farmers who were worried the parks were out to take their land. Gradually area farmers began to see the value in maintaining functioning prairie habitats, and many were conservationists themselves. Huge swaths of cornfield were negotiated for purchase. Old tile and drain systems were broken to allow the prairie ponds to come back. "It only took a year before the waterfowl returned - ducks, geese, marsh hawks, short eared owl, and occasional sandhill cranes," said a park ranger who joined me for the owl watch, "Everybody, especially the farmers, were thrilled. It was immediate gratification - an almost instant reward for all the effort."
|Large prairie oaks dominate the savannah.|
Inviting the public to help, native prairie grass and wildflower seeds were collected by hand from the small remnant habitats. Seasonal fire was reintroduced into the landscape, an important ally in prairie restoration, as many savannah and prairie plants have evolved with it. But something was missing. Bison herds that once enriched the prairie with their manure, kneading the ground with their hooves during migrations, and browsing down invasive scrublands, hadn't been found in Ohio since 1803. It was the missing piece of the restoration that finally came about in 2013 when a small herd of bison was reintroduced to the park.
|A cold blast of snow-fog swirls over the wet prairie ahead of a cold front.|
I'd been hiking for about two hours following a popular greenway trail from a wet swampy woods (also under restoration management) through open oak savannah and out on to the great hilly tall grass prairie. A marsh hawk wheeled over the open ponds and red-winged blackbirds konk-a-reed from prominent perches. It was almost impossible to imagine this all as cornfield. It was so complex and rich. "We are better at farming now, more than ever," explained a Darby Watershed Association member who happened also to be a farmer. He had joined me on the walk, heading out to the owl watch. "We don't need all this land like we once thought. We're more efficient, we have more reliable crops and seed, and with the technology we have today we can be precise and extremely mindful of how and where we grow crops. We can grow more food on less land by using sound conservation practices."
|Marsh hawk over a wet prairie pond.|
A strange cold mist had descended over the landscape. My companion explained it's a spring thing - one minute it's sixty degrees, the next minute you can't see for the fog and you are shivering. The wind kicked up and the distant wooded hills disappeared in smokey blue. Then we saw them, coming up out of the ravines. Bison!
|Coming up the hill from the creek!|
Three cows and a bull moved silently into view, keeping an eye on my companion and I. To prevent human-bison conflicts, the park has fenced a large portion of the valley off from people. I realized we had been walking through a corridor of protective fencing for some time - I'd been too focused on birding to notice! The bison have plenty of room to roam - acres and acres of space across a large swath of hills - and the prairie they move through shows the signs of slow browsing - plenty of manure, shrub cropping, and a few wallows (these are critical wetland and water sources). The big bull snuffed and snorted and the small group stopped and stared. Close enough, he seemed to say.
|Hope for the prairie is a contented bison.|
I heard a happy shout from a family coming down greenway trail "There they are! There they are!!" We stood for a long time admiring the bison, now so close I could smell their rich manure and shaggy winter coats. The dad lifted his young daughter on to his shoulders and said "Honey, you are the first Ohio generation to have them back in over two hundred years. Take care of them okay?" The little girl clapped her hands and said "Yes! Yes!" and I thought I saw her dad wipe away a tear.
I suppose the real hope for a restoration of the Ohio prairie comes as a bison, following the path people have made for him, on the heels of land deals, working partnerships, hand seeding and autumn burns, putting back what was removed - and most importantly - changing attitudes. But like the cold snow fog that was enveloping the landscape around us, it could all so easily disappear without dedicated stewardship. I wasn't sure what impressed me more - the sight of bison in Ohio or the years of hard work by hundreds of people to have that small herd come over the hill today.
Central Ohio Metroparks - http://www.metroparks.net/