Portage County acquires its 11th park, largest yet

Brittany Moseley

SHALERSVILLE – A 504-acre property in that is home to 23 wetlands and several rare and endangered species is now Portage County’s 11th park.

The Upper Cuyahoga Bog Preserve was owned by the Burton Morgan Foundation before the Portage County Park District and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy acquired the land two weeks ago.

At one time, there were talks that the property, located south of the Ohio Turnpike and east of state Route 44 in Shalersville, would be used for a freight airport and later a housing development.

Executive director Christine Craycroft said the area, which is more than two times larger than Towner’s Woods, the second largest park in the county, was attractive to the park district for its high quality wetlands, endangered species and size.

“Generally, the larger property or area you can conserve, the better,” Craycroft said.

Chris Szell, associate director of regional conservation for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, said the conservancy has a land acquisition program. It works with an entity, in this case Portage County parks, to manage land.

“We work with a host of folks, and our mission is to preserve working lands and open green space,” Szell said. “Whenever we have an opportunity to secure and protect a large trac of land like this, it’s appealing to us.”

The park district’s funds are tighter than most during this economic downturn, but it did not pay for the park. The costs were covered by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. NEORSD took out a low-interest loan from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency through its Water Pollution Control Loan Fund. In exchange for sponsoring a water quality preservation or restoration project (the Upper Cuyahoga Bog Preserve), the EPA reduces the interest rate NEORSD pays on its loan and funnels a portion of the interest to the water quality project.

The park will have to cover operating costs if it decides to open it to the public. Currently, the plan is to use the park for hiking, bird watching and educational programs.

“We just don’t have it in the way of operating funds,” Craycroft said. “We’re pretty stretched right now . We’re trying to be cautious with our funds.”

Five failed attempts to pass a levy – the latest in November – have done more than leave the park district strapped for funds; they’ve also kept six parks closed to the public.

“I think generally new taxes have a hard time getting passed in Portage County. A lot of the county is still very rural,” Craycroft said. “There’s a lot of green space around in Portage County. People don’t feel the eminent need to fund it.”

She also said people are confused about how the park district is funded. Portage County also has state and city parks that are funded differently and better than county parks, Craycroft said. She said people might think county parks are funded through the same means as the other parks.

One way the park district is looking to generate funds is through its new division, the Portage Park District Foundation. The plan is to have a board assembled by February. The foundation will officially start April 10 at the park district’s annual awards dinner. Budget aside, Craycroft and Szell agree the area offers a host of natural wonders that make the property worth it. The wetlands are a Category 3, which is the best rating in the state. Szell said the scale is based on size, types of species in the area and the land around it.

“It’s a class of identifying, ‘Here on this property, we have high quality wetlands; wetlands that are being lost at a high rate across the state of Ohio,'” he said.

Wetlands are a keystone habitat that a lot of species take advantage of, Szell said. Some of the endangered and rare species in the Upper Cuyahoga Bog Reserve are plants: the Wild Calla Lily and Rose Shell Azalea; birds: the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush and Canada Warbler; and a dragonfly: the Great Blue Skimmer.

“The property has a lot of important wetland habitat areas. It’s important for protecting water quality,” Craycroft said. “It really needs our conservation mission.”

Contact public affairs reporter Brittany Moseley at [email protected].