Getting there is ALL the fun

The hike’s the thing

Larry Smith standing on Thresher Rock

Larry Smith at Thesher Rock.

Note: Thanks to the vision, generosity and hard work of a lot of people, a new hiking trail will open this year. With the state of things in Ohio, this couldn’t have come at a better time. Here’s an article I wrote about it late last year. Hope you enjoy it. More importantly, I hope you’ll make the effort to become a part of this in whatever way you can — and enjoy it to the fullest. While you can. 

The region is known for its destination spots — Mohican and Malabar state parks, Mohican Memorial State Forest and Pleasant Hill Lake Park. The area’s newest addition, dubbed the Mohican Complex, will be more of a journey than a destination.

A 4.5-mile trail linking the Richland B&O Trail in Butler to Mohican Country parks and forestland will provide a venue for dedicated nature lovers to explore hundreds of acres of woods, prairie, streams and geological wonders.

It also will serve as a link through time, preserving the region’s natural heritage for future generations. That’s particularly important at a time when public lands such as Mohican Memorial State Forest, the state parks and Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District land — which includes Pleasant Hill Lake Park — could be subject to wholesale logging, mining and drilling for oil and natural gas.

Some 570 acres in southeast Richland County will be preserved through conservation easements that have been in the works since 1991. That includes spectacular geological formations, mature forests, vast prairie tracts showcasing native flora and one of the area’s best-known natural wonders, Hemlock Falls. All of this will be connected via a hiking corridor slated to open in 2015.

On a few segments of the trail, hikers will use short stretches of lightly traveled back road. However, most of the trail will meander through forests and meadows. The Mohican Complex corridor begins near the end of the 19-mile Richland B&O Trail in Butler, meanders northeast through Worthington Township in Richland County and ultimately connects to MWCD trails north of Pleasant Hill Road, where it crosses Clear Fork of the Mohican River.

The MWCD trails lead to connector trails linking Malabar Farm State Park to Pleasant Hill Lake Park, Mohican State Park and Mohican Memorial State Forest. In all, those parks and forest account for about 9,000 acres of public land.

Landowners, groups work together

So, with all that public parkland, why are the people behind the Mohican Complex determined to preserve acreage?

Recent logging at Mohican State Park and Mohican Memorial State Forest raises questions about the state's will to protect these areas.

Recent logging at Mohican State Park and Mohican Memorial State Forest raises questions about the state’s will to protect these areas. (Photo by Annette McCormick)

Much of their impetus comes from escalating efforts by MWCD and state government to capitalize on natural resources, opening public lands and parks to increased logging, mining and — more recently — extraction of natural gas and oil through large-scale horizontal hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.

To protect some of the region’s prized natural areas from commercial activity, the North Central Ohio Land Conservancy worked with landowners, organizations and volunteers to obtain and protect land permanently.

Those involved in the efforts or granting easements include Mohican School in the Out of Doors, Richland County Park District, Larry and Elaine Smith, First Congregational Church of Mansfield and Ohio Dreams.

“It’s ironic that a church, a school, a county park district and the Smiths are combining with a land trust to protect their land better than the state of Ohio protects public lands by granting conservation easements and legally binding themselves and their successors to protect the land forever,” said Mansfield attorney Eric Miller, a land conservancy trustee. “As more trails and protected lands are connected to Mohican by us and other organizations, perhaps the state will wake up to the importance of the Mohican Complex and take measures to protect it for the future by recording conservation easements on its land.”

Steve McKee, a naturalist who provides guidance for the North Central Ohio Land Conservancy, explained why it’s important to preserve forests.

“Timbering, including sustainable logging, causes a decrease in the amount of old-growth shaded forest and in the plant and animal species that require this fairly uncommon habitat,” McKee said. “Logging opens up more early-successional (developing forest) and edge habitat, which ultimately results in a net decrease in biodiversity for the area.”

Invasive species can take over

In logged and otherwise disturbed areas, invasive species quickly take over, crowding out native species. He went on to explain why undisturbed, mature forests are particularly important in preserving high-quality stream habitat.

“Timbering, especially in the vicinity or riparian areas, causes an increase in soil and water temperatures,” McKee said. “Most of the waterways in Ohio are already far warmer than in pre-settlement times. It is the cool, clear waters that contain the less common and rare species of fish, invertebrates and aquatic plants.”

Initially, Miller, the Smiths and others involved did not set out to create a cluster of nature preserves, much less connect them via a corridor to public parkland. That started to fall into place in 1998, when George Hammon contacted North Central Ohio Land Conservancy about donating about 200 acres.

The land, most of it mature forest, lies east of Clear Fork of the Mohican River off Benedict Road.

“When George Hammon said he was thinking of giving us land around Benedict Road, that’s when it hit me,” Miller said. “If I could get land along Benedict Road, I could string together a whole trail.”

The Conservancy worked with the Richland County Park District and other parties to secure easements and further protect land along the corridor. That includes two parcels that Larry and Elaine Smith purchased with the intent of preserving native plant species and creating prairie habitat to attract native birds, insects and other fauna.

One of the properties, about 27.6 acres, is at Tugend and Bunkerhill roads. The other, 78 acres, fronts to Cole Road and is connected to other properties that have conservation easements, including Hemlock Falls.

Effort by Smiths started in 2001

For the Smiths, their venture started in 2001 when they purchased the Tugend Road property, which had been mostly cropland. Since then, they have dedicated themselves to creating and maintaining prairie habitat with a variety of habitat-appropriate trees planted in the margins.

Among them is the offspring of the celebrated gigantic Jeromesville sycamore. They also created small ponds for aquatic habitat.

For the Smiths, it has been a labor of love — a lot of labor. Since their first land acquisition in 2001, they and a few volunteers have been busy planting native flora, making trails, erecting bird boxes and trying their best to keep invasive species at bay.

“This has pretty much been the equivalent of a full-time job,” said Larry Smith, a Mansfield native and a former park naturalist.

“I grew up loving nature,” he said. “When I was 5 years old, I remember playing in the driveway with pieces of gravel and wanting to be a geologist.”

When he was young, his family would go for Sunday drives in the Mohican area.

“I was in Boy Scouts and our troop camped in Mohican a lot,” Smith said.

Prairie habitat is not native to these sites, but Smith sees the value of preserving it.

“Once heavily-forested Worthington Township has probably not known any true native prairie landscape itself for thousands of years since just after retreat of the last glacier, if ever,” he said. “But a diverse, native prairie habitat is part of Ohio’s natural heritage.”

Portions of the properties the Smiths developed are forested and the Cole Road site includes a rock outcropping towering 300 feet above the Clear Fork Valley. It’s known as the Threshing Floor or Threshing Rock because it’s been said that, in pioneer times, people used the flat surface of the bluff overlooking the river to thresh grain.

High point offers panoramic view

The Cole Road site also features a panoramic view — during the winter months — rivaling that from Mount Jeez, part of Malabar Farm State Park. The high point on that property is about 40 feet higher than Mount Jeez.

The Smith’s prairie tracts feature footpaths designed to fit the contours of the landscape. Plans call for side trails on these and other Mohican Complex properties in addition to the 4.5-mile corridor trail.

Not all trails will be open to the public on a continuing basis. Some are situated in environmentally sensitive areas and special arrangements must be made to see them.

The Mohican Complex corridor isn’t intended for picnicking and casual use. It’s geared toward people with a deeper appreciation for conservation and preservation.

“The properties are open to informed people, such as naturalists and hunters,” said Miller of North Central Ohio Land Conservancy. “They won’t be open to the general public, like Lyons Falls (a popular landmark in Mohican Memorial State Forest). We don’t want to get to that point.”

Some of the land will be closed during hunting season. Limited hunting privileges will be granted to individual hunters under rules set by people designated to manage each property. This will help keep animal populations at manageable levels to limit damage to the flora.

Hikers will be allowed access to view Hemlock Falls.

Some lands will have limited access

“Protecting the rare plants around the falls will involve limited access to view, rather than hands-on,” Miller said.

In the early going, ample signage will be posted to discourage hikers from straying off the paths and damaging sensitive flora or wandering onto adjacent private property. Over time, once hikers become familiar with the trails, some of the signage will be removed for aesthetic reasons.

Meanwhile, volunteers will be busy establishing trails in anticipation of opening the corridor to hiking in 2015. Miller expects it to be a process of “trail and error” — trying to find routes to allow hikers to explore the best the land has to offer while protecting sensitive ecosystems.

“They will be three feet wide at the most,“ he said. “In some places, we’ll use existing gas company rights-of-way. In many places, we’ll use existing foot trails that are there from the property owners’ usage.”

But it’s about more than logistics. Ultimately, Miller, the Smiths, land donors and volunteers hope the Mohican Complex will connect people — and generations — with the land.

“Looking across even a small prairie evokes in one’s imagination a tiny glimmer of what the westward-bound pioneers once saw and felt as they set off into that new and different wilderness of the unknown, hopeful that a better future was out there, over the horizon,” Smith said. “Prairies, like each of the other native habitats, preserve a home for a unique segment of our priceless natural heritage, and offer powerful medicine for the urban-weary human soul.”

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