Flexibility, Collaboration, and Perseverance Save Edison Woods

Flexibility, Collaboration, and Perseverance Save Edison Woods

By Kate Pilacky, Firelands Land Conservancy, Friends of Wetlands

The Edison Woods Preserve, located in Erie County, Ohio, about a mile from Lake Erie, is comprised of 1400 acres of woods, including approximately 600 acres of wetlands. Edison Woods offers crucial wildlife habitat in a region facing rapid development. With 460 species of plants it is one of the most biologically diverse properties in Northern Ohio. The preserve is home to potentially rare salamanders and other amphibians, several endangered or threatened plants, and it is an important migratory bird habitat in a part of Ohio almost entirely denuded of trees. The land also contains the headwaters of Old Woman Creek, part of the national coastal research system.

In 1998 the owners of the woods, FirstEnergy Corp, indicated that they would be interested in selling the entire 1300 acres. For eight years Erie MetroParks had leased the property from FirstEnergy making it available for public use. If developers were allowed to purchase the woods it would be a great loss of wildlife habitat and public greenspace. Recognizing the importance of protecting the woods, a group of concerned citizens came together to form the Friends of Edison Woods (FEW), a grassroots group dedicated exclusively to the permanent protection of Edison Woods.

FEW knew that it would cost the Erie MetroParks between $4million and $6 million to purchase the property. Without a firm dollar amount for the purchase price of the woods FEW decided to wait before approaching local foundations or other large contributors. They did, however apply for and receive a $3000 grant from GLAHNF to compile a simple but effective brochure to educate public officials, media, and Erie county residents about the existence of prime wooded wildlife habitat in Edison Woods and why it should be protected. The brochure would explain the ecological significance, the geological history, and the recreational opportunities of Edison Woods Reserve.

With grant funding, 25,000 educational brochures were printed and distributed during the summer of 2000. Approximately 7,500 residents of Erie County received the brochure along with an accompanying letter and a fundraising appeal. Additional copies of the brochure were distributed at county fairs and other Erie County events. Money raised through the fundraising effort was used for additional educational efforts.

FEW members were actively involved in giving presentations and fundraising, donating approximately 800 man-hours. A campaign detailing the significance of the site and requesting the permanent protection of the land was directed to the real estate division of FirstEnergy, the Governor of Ohio, and other officials.

In September of 2000 a levy for Edison Woods, authorizing the Erie MetroParks’ acquisition of the woods, was introduced. The levy was scheduled to be on the November 2000 ballot, which left its proponents with little time to generate voter support. The Trust for Public Land (TPL) was able to secure some funding for the levy campaign, contributing money and expertise to the voter initiative. The Erie MetroParks also received funding to develop a park plan, which included a nature center, baseball diamonds, and improved trails in hopes that additional facilities would increase voter buy-in.

Despite delays such as, uncertainty about on the asking price of the land and whether or not the seller would be willing to wait on the outcome of the levy, the campaign to save the woods persisted. Volunteers canvassed door-to-door with flyers, wrote letters of support, and held educational events at public venues.

The levy to raise funds for the purchase of Edison Woods went to ballot in November of 2000 and failed by 1500 votes. A logging interest came in and began marking trees to cut almost immediately after the levy failed. Hearts sank with high priced housing looming, but we did not give up. FEW’s mission had always been the preservation of Edison Woods and they were determined to find another way. Through the public education and citizen awareness campaign FEW was successful in keeping Edison Woods in the public view and was able to help retain the possibility of Erie MetroParks’ purchase of Edison woods. As it turned out they had been able to generate enough public interest to keep the door open just long enough for final protection.

TPL had begun general discussions with FirstEnergy regarding the possible acquisition of the Edison Woods property in the spring of 1998 and became even more involved during the levy campaign. When the levy failed they “pulled a rabbit from a hat.” TPL secured funding through the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Resources Restoration Sponsorship Program (WRRSP). The WRRSP is intended to improve and protect water quality through the purchase of undeveloped land where surface waters are filtered through natural processes such as those that take place in wetlands. Municipalities borrowing money from the State’s Water Pollution Control Loan Fund (WPCLF) receive an interest rate reduction (.1%) for borrowing more money than needed and then using the additional money for water resource protection or restoration projects. Through this program the municipality’s overall payments on the loan are reduced.

In an incredibly tight timeframe a “sponsor” for the WRRSP funding was found in the City of Marion, located 70 miles south of Edison Woods. The city of Marion tacked on an extra $6 million to their loan request and gave that money to Erie MetroParks. The cost to purchase the Edison Woods Preserve was approximately 4.5 million dollars, leaving money for property restoration, including the return of more than 300 acres of old wet farm fields to native prairie grasses. During a 20-year period (while Marion pays back the loan) Erie MetroParks must manage the restoration work according to a detailed Ohio EPA plan. Among other things, the plan spells out the details of where the native forest will be allowed to return and how the meadows shall be maintained.

The sale of the property closed around the end of March 2001. The dedication ceremony took place in October 2001 and the public maintains access to this special natural area. Due to the efforts of grassroots community groups, Erie MetroParks, and the Ohio office of the Trust for Public Land, Edison Woods is now permanently protected. Having successfully seen their goal to its completion the Friends of Edison Woods dissolved as an organization. Individuals who had been active in FEW continue to be involved in other organizations but with the goal of saving Edison Woods accomplished the members of FEW have been able to concentrate their efforts elsewhere.

Edison Woods Preserve has no nature center, no ball diamonds, and no paved trails. Most of the individuals working on the campaign just wanted the land to be preserved, period. That is what we have, quiet trails, migratory bird habitat, wildflowers, and big trees. And wetlands, a place for leopard frogs, salamanders, spring peepers, and some muddy hiking boots, which is just fine!

Edison Woods is located on Rt. 61 in Berlin Heights, Ohio, just south of Rt. 2. For more information about this special place, please call Erie MetroParks at (419) 621-4220 www.erieMetroParks.org, or visit the Trust for Public Land at www.tpl.org.

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.