Oak Openings corridor nears completion

In the six years since voters approved a land acquisition levy for the Toledo Metroparks, the park system has been busy acquiring acreage in several corridors.

The park system has focused on five target areas. They are Oak Openings Corridor, Lake Erie Coastal Zone, Maumee River Corridor, Ottawa River Corridor and Swan Creek Corridor.

Tim Schetter, land acquisition agent, noted that over the past six years the Metroparks has purchased 2,732 acres of land at an estimated cost of $27.5 million. The original objective of the levy was to raise $23 million for land purchase, he explained, adding that the park system has been able to obtain an additional $13.4 million in grants.

The Clean Ohio Fund, which provided a portion of the grant funding, is on the ballot in November. If it is renewed, Mr. Schetter believes the park system will be able to obtain sufficient funds to complete the corridor connection for Oak Openings.

The Metroparks has given special attention to this corridor, which stretches from Secor Park southwest to Oak Openings Park near the Fulton/Lucas County line. Mr. Schetter said the corridor is 80 percent complete.

He pointed out that the park system's goal was to purchase 1,800 acres and to date, it has obtained 1,362 acres. To help connect the two parks, the Metroparks is utilizing existing land connections to other nature preserves in addition to its acquired acreage [see map].  "We want to have a physical connection from park to park," he explained.

From Secor Park's southern border, the corridor meets the Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve operated by the Ohio Department of Natural Reserves (ODNR). The Metroparks purchased land south of Irwin Prairie along Eber Road to the Nature Conservancy's Kitty Todd Preserve. On the southeast border of Kitty Todd, the park system  has land along Shaffer Road to Eber and Geiser roads.

The Metroparks owns additional acreage south of Geiser and is planning to connect the corridor to the ODNR's Lou Campbell State Nature Preserve.  The Metroparks also owns land on the southern border of the preserve to just north of Maumee Western Road. Additional acreage has been purchased along Monclova Road to Berkey Southern Road near Oak Openings Park. Developing the Oak Openings Corridor has been a challenge for the park system, in part because of Toledo Express Airport.

The Metroparks has had to circumvent the airport, said Mr. Schetter. He noted that residential development and the Ohio Turnpike also have posed challenges.  The park system needs to find a way to get over the turnpike, he said. "Ideally we would like to see a pedestrian bridge." During a tour of the acreage, Mr. Schetter spoke about the importance of the project to the region.

"This is one of the most imperiled plant communities in the world," he said. Sedge, a type of tall grass that once dominated the meadows, helps to hold back flood waters and filter pollutants, Mr. Schetter explained. "It's our duty to preserve it," he said of the rare plant, which is experiencing a resurgence on newly acquired lands.

Other native species also are beginning to return, including blazing star, cardinal and witch grass.  "It's [witch grass] the tumbleweed of Oak Openings," he added.

Many of the native grass seeds have remained dormant in the sandy soil for years, while farmers grew crops, said Mr. Schetter. The land acquisition agent pointed out that much of the acreage required restoration. He noted that some of the sites had been used as dump sites for years. He recalled one parcel which appeared to have about 300-400 tires  on a portion of the parcel. "It turned out to be about 4,000 tires," he said.

Once the acreage is restored, the park system begins the process of returning native species to the land. "It will take decades for the ecosystem to re-establish with plants and animals," Mr. Schetter explained. He added, "Clearly our biggest challenge is to sustain a biological community."

Some sites have been quick to recover, particularly acreage along Monclova Road near the water tower. Less than three years after being purchased, the land is rapidly returning to its original state with native grasses and other species covering the ground. Other areas are slower to return and are sometimes inhibited by non native species.

"Buckthorn is the most pervasive and invasive of the many [non-native] species, said Mr. Schetter. He noted that Oak Openings is different from other parts of what was once known as the Great Black Swamp.

Much of northwest Ohio experienced swamp conditions due to lack of drainage, he said, adding that when drainage was installed the swamp disappeared. Oak Openings, however, is fed by underwater tributaries, he said.  Although much of the park system's focus has been on the Oak Openings corridor and habitat, the Metroparks system also has purchased acreage in other corridors.

Of the targeted 1,600 acres in the Lake Erie Coastal Zone, the Metroparks has acquired 987 acres.  In addition, more than 60 of the planned 350 acres has been purchased in the Maumee River corridor between Providence Park near Grand Rapids and Side Cut Park in Maumee.

Lesser amounts have been purchased at the Ottawa River and Swan Creek corridors where five acres have been acquired. -Jane Maiolo