Rural Paulding County may be on its way toward getting something a lot of people take for granted: a park.
Thanks to the Black Swamp Conservancy, a northwest Ohio land trust based in Perrysburg, the county's new park district has 80 acres of historic, highly diverse land waiting for it along an unspoiled creek - at no charge.
All the park district must do is figure out how it'll raise a few thousand dollars to put in a parking lot and a hiking trail or two, and maybe a boardwalk. Then, it must work out administrative details for doing whatever light maintenance might have to be done in the coming years, while keeping the property in its natural state.
Sound easy? Well, Paulding County's fledgling park district is so new, it literally hasn't even had its first meeting. The Black Swamp Conservancy's recent acquisition of a site known as the Forrest Woods Nature Preserve inspired not only visions of the county's first park, but the formation of the county's park district itself.
“We're excited about it, because we've never had an effort like this in the county,” said Doug Dunakin, one of three residents Probate Judge Russell McMaster named park commissioners recently. “We have no money, but we have hope.”
The land acquisition is a first for the Black Swamp Conservancy too. It marks the first time in the group's 10-year existence that it has bought property. Its work has been focused on helping landowners obtain conservation easements. Those are legal tools for preserving land in which property owners voluntarily surrender future development rights.
The conservancy recently bought the 80 acres in Paulding County's Crane Township for $330,000 from the estate of the late Clair Forrest, a Tiffin lawyer who died in March. The land, south of County Road 230 and east of County Road 73, is along the Marie DeLarme Creek.
About $302,898 of that sum was public money made available to the group under the Clean Ohio Fund. That's a program in which voters authorized the state in November, 2000, to raise $400 million over four years for land reclamation and preservation projects.
The Paulding County park district likely will take one to two years to work out logistics before assuming ownership. Residents need permission from the conservancy to gain access to the site until the property is transferred.
“We're under no pressure to do that. We're not pushing the county to take the property, and they're not under a deadline to accept it,” said Mr. Schetter, the group's executive director. “We can manage the property until they're ready to take it over.”
Group president Paul Tait agreed. He said the conservancy will pay taxes on the land until the transfer occurs. “The first part has been done, and that is to save those 80 acres,” he said.
Deed restrictions forbid anything other than trails, a parking lot, and boardwalk - no visitor's center or other structure. The conservancy will turn the land over to Paulding County on condition that the site becomes no more than a low-impact nature preserve for birders and hikers, like Goll Woods in Fulton County, Mr. Schetter said. Goll Woods, comprising 321 acres northwest of Archbold, has trees 200 to 400 years old.
The property will be donated. “Since we received public money for this, we're not going to sell it. When the time comes, we will donate it to the county and deed it over,” he said.
The land is among the most valuable, least disturbed remnants of northwest Ohio's historic Great Black Swamp. Much of the region was under water as recently as the 1800s, but was tiled and drained. Hundreds of acres of wetlands were destroyed, but some of the nation's most productive farmland has emerged.
The nature preserve, a marshy area filled with old-growth trees, is one of the few sites never drained. The 80 acres the conservancy bought were part of a 400-acre farm the Forrest family owned since the late 1950s, according to the former owner's son, Clair Forrest, Jr. “I practically lived in those woods” as a youth, he recalled.
His mother, Martha Ann Forrest, said it was her husband's dream to keep the land in its natural state. “We worked hard to keep it that way,” she said.
The site is a favorite of one of nature's most graceful creatures, the great blue heron. The preserve hosts a heron rookery, as well as wild turkeys, deer, raccoons, rare types of turtles and salamanders, and rare and endangered plants and flowers.
Marshal Moser, who first came in contact with it while doing inventories for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said it is certainly ranks among the most ecologically-diverse spots in northwest Ohio, if not the whole state.
“In terms of diversity of plants and animals, it may be the best remnant [of the Great Black Swamp],” said Mr. Moser, a wildlife biologist who's done such inventories throughout the Midwest for more than 30 years. A former state director of the Nature Conservancy, he owns a biological consulting firm called EcoServices of Lima, Ohio.
In a letter he wrote in support of the Black Swamp Conservancy's application for money from the Clean Ohio Fund, he told state officials the property has more than 550 species of plants and animals. “Of these, over a dozen are variously listed by the state of Ohio as rare, threatened, or endangered,” he wrote.
Mr. Dunakin, a former deputy county engineer, is among those excited about the possibilities. He has visited the site with his wife, Micki, an avid birder. “It's almost like you're back in pioneer days. The wildness kind of takes over,” he said.