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After years of using fire to revitalize rare oak savanna and prairie habitats, one of the most respected “burn bosses” at Toledo Metroparks is passing the torch.
Jerry Jankowski, who lives just outside Swanton, has been a ranger for the Metroparks more than 30 years. For most of his career, he was assistant manager of Oak Openings Preserve Metropark, and he became manager of the park about two years ago.
“There s been plenty of challenge,” Mr. Jankowski said. “Oak Openings is such a unique and large natural area.”
Mr. Jankowski, 54, retired last month to spend more time taking outdoor trips with his wife and sons. He said skiing in Colorado and hiking through the backcountry in the southwestern states are on his itinerary.
“This seemed like a good time to wrap things up. It s time for the younger folks on the Metroparks staff to get a chance,” he said.
Mr. Jankowski got his chance at the Metroparks when he put aside his bachelor s degree in business from the University of Toledo and decided to pursue a career based on his love of nature.
He started out as a seasonal Metroparks employee and then trained to become a ranger. The training combines elements of law enforcement and naturalist studies.
Co-workers said Mr. Jankowski is an excellent ranger because he expertly balances different aspects of his job.
“He s just as good a naturalist as he is a policeman,” said Art Weber, director of the National Center for Nature Photography at Secor Metropark. “He cares so much about the outdoors. He s passionate not just about nature, but about the Oak Openings region.”
Mr. Jankowski gets shy when asked about his personal life, but he has lots to say about Oak Openings, where he lived with his family for more than 10 years. The park contains oak savannas and oak prairies, which are “globally rare environments,” he said.
Over the years, Mr. Jankowski watched the philosophy of the Metroparks staff shift toward a more active approach. Rather than just fending off encroaching development, staff members wanted to encourage the return of endangered plants and animals in the parks.
Controlled burning has helped rare species flourish at Oak Openings, Mr. Jankowski said. Small fires in specific areas destroy foreign plants that harm the prairie and savanna environments. The flames also stimulate seeds of rare native plants, such as the purple fringed orchid and blue toadflax.
“When you see unusual plants come back like that, it s really gratifying,” Mr. Jankowski said.
Bob Jacksy, an Oak Openings naturalist, said Mr. Jankowski was a strong and organized leader for the controlled burns, and served as a mentor for many employees.
“We have young seasonal employees, and he would inspire them to pursue the field,” Mr. Jacksy said. “He s always there with a smile and a good word to help folks find that rare bird or look for that rare plant.
“He has a good heart, and he s been great to work with.”