New Threatened Species on Kelleys Island
By Pat Hayes of Kelleys Island Audubon
Living on an island in one of the most infamous lakes in the world has certain advantages. One is that it is not too crowded, two, there are still lots of natural areas and three, everyone wants to protect it from the real world.
Kelleys Island, a 2,800 acre island in Lake Erie, is located just off the northern shore of Ohio, and has been going through some changes. In the 1840’s all the cedar tree forests were harvested for steamship fuel. Shortly thereafter, enough grapes were grown to support the largest winery in the U.S. At about the same time a limestone quarry appeared and also became the most productive company in the country. The Kelley Family, which had purchased the entire island for $1.60 an acre wasted no time in making the land a harbinger for their fame and fortune.
My wife, Lori, is a Kelley. My name is Pat Hayes. We are environmentalists. On a guided tour with Greg Nelson, a naturalist from Grand Rapids, Michigan, we were motivated by a yellow warbler and an indigo bunting feeding by an illegal quarry that had been blasted the previous winter. Greg’s passion for birds was rubbing off on all of us. We looked at more birds in the rock pit of water and saw the direction Kelleys Island was headed, the same direction as 1840, only different players. Our friend, Beverly, said we should do something for the birds, so we did. The Kelleys Island Audubon was born that day.
We realized from the start that enlightening people would come from educating them. Food gets peoples’ attention. Our recipe for successful Audubon meetings became potlucks, and interesting free programs, held in conjunction with business meetings.
Our first major battle was fighting a 350 unit condo project proposed for an island wetland. Because we didn’t want to sever our membership, we formed sub groups to avoid conflicts with some members involved in the sale of the land needed for the project. This was our first realization of the power of a network. We utilized Ohio scientists familiar with Kelleys Island along with government and non-government organizations for advice and help. I thank them all. The deal finally fell through when the state refused access across their property for a drain. Did we help? I don’t know. I do know the 52 acres of land is almost all preserved as a natural area owned by three eco-friendly organizations. Did we win? I think so. We are here and we care, was our message. A few were surprised, all were glad that finally there was a grassroots group looking after Kelleys Island.
Partnerships have been a strong point in our club. Our first partnership involved the island Bed and Breakfasts (B & B’s). We felt that to achieve our mission of habitat preservation we needed to prove the economic benefits. Our monthly programs were doing well, but the Audubon and B&B’s decided a week of Nature programs in the spring would be just the ticket to attract the many birders that were coming to the region every spring. We called our series “Nest With the Birds.” The first few years were not well attended, but we stuck to our plan and slowly we have become a popular destination for birders. The B&B’s enjoy the patronage of birders and we are changing the attitudes of other island businesses as well. Fun eco-activities such as hawk watchers and evening woodcock circles are enjoyed by islanders and visitors alike.
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has become a strong supporter of our club. Twice a year on museum land, we do bird banding on Long Point. This pristine piece of land on Kelleys offers birds a natural funnel before they leave for Point Pelee, Canada. Master bird bander, H. Thomas Bartlett’s long term study has intrigued people of all ages. Truly a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
One of the low points on the island was our North Pond. This embayment pond was seen by few and used by many. The island’s wildlife has this 28 acre area all to themselves. One winter a developer cleared 30 acres of low land just south of the pond for a housing development. The plan presented to the state of Ohio was for the subdivision’s storm drains to go directly into the North Pond. This was to be done with a 30inch drain across 360 feet of state property leading to the pond. The permit to be signed had North Pond listed as an old abandoned quarry. After a few calls to Governor Voinivich, the error on the permit was realized and permission was not granted. A sediment pond now services the development. Close call.
After the North Pond scare we began gathering information. The Division of Natural Areas and Preserves supplied us with reports on the pond and a new plant community called an alvar. After much lobbying, I received an invitation to speak to the Lake Erie Commission in Columbus. The group advises the Governor on Lake Erie’s coastal areas. Several club members helped me prepare a slide presentation and a talk. Being a small grassroots organization, this was a very big deal for all of us.
During my short talk, I pitched our desire for a Natural Areas and Preserve designation. This is the most protection the State of Ohio will grant, a special designation going to only the cream of the crop. I also asked for a boardwalk. We had a major dedication for Ohio’s two newest Natural Areas last fall on Kelleys Island. The North Pond and North Shore Alvar Natural Areas and Preserves. The Director of Natural Areas, Sam Speck, spoke along with several other dignitaries. The program ended with a plant walk led by the Chief Ohio Botanist, Allison Cusick, on our new plastic boardwalk. I still can’t believe it.
Networking in the natural world is work. You have to attend seminars, volunteer for projects, and do your part for your community. Several years ago, I was invited by the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves to attend a conference in Tobormory, Ontario, Canada. At the last program I was invited to speak on the impact of tourism and pristine natural areas. The less than contagious botanists, inspired me to talk about “selling plants to tourists.” After the gasps in the audience I explained I only meant for teaching. Passion and education keeps interest levels up. People will learn to watch where they step.
With the encouragement and help of Sandy Bonano of New York’s Nature Conservancy, and many others from Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, we were awarded our first grant in 1998 from the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Fund. By December 31, 1999 we had completed an island wide education process and produced a wonderful brochure for our new Natural Areas.
The goal setting that our club officers have completed is paying off with strong partnerships. Our club has now grown to around 150 members. The multiple talents of the members are amazing. Everyone in a small group is an integral part of the whole. Our membership is very diverse. The birds, plants and geology are always challenging us in different ways to protect them. We are the voice of the natural world on Kelleys Island. Progress does not have to be a dirty deed. With the help of Audubon members we are beginning to educate visitors and residents to the many wonders our island has to offer. We feel this process will encourage our community to harbor new values about ecosystems and the way the whole island interacts with nature and man.
Our latest challenge has been with protecting the Lake Erie water snake. The shrinking numbers of our snakes warranted threatened species protection. Kent Kroonemeyer along with Buddy Fazio with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Division of Endangered Species spearheaded community events from public forums to school poster contests. Kent and Buddy felt that education would be the key to saving the snake. Much time was spent teaching islanders the importance of the snake and its habitat. Our 150 signs on Kelleys Island were requested in writing by residents to display on their property. The signs read: Please Protect our Snakes. I was truly amazed how such a snake could be supported by an entire community.
Late last year the Lake Erie water snake got its protection. All of us on Kelleys are very proud to be stewards for this rare snake. We have a federally listed threatened species living on our island.
Unfortunately as I write this, Kent Kroonemeyer and Buddy Fazio have been meeting with developers. Kevin Knight and Associates have purchased our cherished Long Point for a housing project. Long Point is home to the second largest populations of Lake Erie water snakes in the world.
We feel the Endangered Species Act is in danger of being compromised on Kelleys Island. Any precedents set by developers could be a fighting axe for all who want to break the rules of protection the snake now enjoys. If this development is allowed to go forward it will be a sad day for the Lake Erie water snake and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Division. We are now trying to do what Kent and Buddy spent almost six years teaching us. To save the snake, you have to save the habitat. Life and nature requires that. Our stewardship mandates it.