Human nature

Discover Five Rivers MetroParks conservation areas

By Kristen Wicker

Photo: MetroParks staff members built the 1,800-foot boardwalk winding through Woodman Fen with recycled plastic; photo courtesy of MetroParks

Human activity nearly destroyed Woodman Fen, but human intervention saved it.

At one time common in southwest Ohio, fens have rich peat soils fed by underground water. Groundwater flows up through the soil and keeps it saturated year-round, creating cool, alkali soil perfect for a specific group of plants.

“The city grew up around the fen in the 1940s and 1950s,” Michael Enright, Five Rivers MetroParks interim director of conservation, says of the 33-acre property in east Dayton. “There were attempts to use it as farmland and plans to create a golf course and build houses, but this patch was always too wet. It became the first unofficial nature play area in east Dayton. Neighbors have numerous stories about playing in the woods and mud.”

Years ago, Jim Schenning purchased the property with plans to mine it for topsoil. “But the more he learned about the property and realized what a unique habitat it was, he decided he shouldn’t destroy it,” Enright says. Instead, Schenning contacted Five Rivers MetroParks to purchase and preserve it.

When MetroParks purchased the property in 2003, it was covered with invasive plants and had become a dumping ground for everything from shingles to a couple of semi-truck axles.

“I knew that to restore it would take a lot of time and money,” Enright says.

The first couple years of restoration focused on removing invasive plants and 20 tons of trash. Work began in 2008 on the next priority: restoring groundwater flow. Decades worth of clay and plastic tiles littered the property in the muck and peat to drain away precious groundwater, the lifeblood of a fen.  A nearby tributary of the Little Beaver Creek, where water from the fen drains, had been dredged and modified to the point that the property couldn’t fully be restored as a fen without human intervention.

In what became a huge engineering success, a 15-foot underground dam of sheet piling was built along the northern perimeter of the property, trapping water and allowing it to flow back to the surface. It was the first time such a system had been designed and installed.

Next up: restoring the plant species that thrive in a fen habitat. Five Rivers MetroParks staff and volunteers collected seeds from healthy wetlands and fens nearby. These seeds were germinated and raised in greenhouses until large enough to transplant into the fen. In spring 2009, approximately 10,000 were planted.

In 2010, dramatic improvements were noticeable. Now, the trick was making the restored fen accessible to the public. Walmart already had contributed to work at Woodman Fen, as the company needed to restore some wetlands as mitigation for a new Dayton-area store. A grant from the Walmart Foundation funded materials for a 1,800-foot boardwalk made of recycled plastic, constructed by MetroParks staff. The ADA- and stroller-accessible boardwalk winds through the fen, its piers resting on six to eight feet of mud and peat. It’s the longest boardwalk in the MetroParks system and includes three small observation decks, as well as signs that mark points of interest and provide information about the plant and animal species that can be observed in this rare ecosystem.

Today, Woodman Fen is an urban oasis.  Beautiful native plants such as jewelweed, queen of the prairie, cardinal flower, and swamp rose can be found — and late July is the best time to visit for the showiest blooms. Visit at dusk for an impressive light show by fireflies. Indeed, MetroParks planted 100 species of plants, but now approximately 180 species can be found, as the restoration work in the fen unearthed plants that had been dormant prior to restoration for hundreds of years.

It’s also an oasis for wildlife, including what staff calls the “frog sauna” — an area with standing water that never freezes and is at 50 degrees year-round. Woodman Fen also is a great location to see migrating birds in the spring and fall, with more than 50 species spotted. Woodman Fen has one of the highest hummingbird populations in MetroParks.

While adjustments still are being made to control the groundwater level, Woodman Fen is past the restoration phase and into the monitoring and maintenance phase.

“The best indicator of success is that’s increasingly difficult to distinguish Woodman Fen from a natural fen,” Enright says. “The plant communities are almost indistinguishable.”

Five Rivers MetroParks manages nearly 16,000 acres of land, 90 percent of it in its natural state. In addition to 18 parks and Woodman Fen, MetroParks manages other conservation areas. Below are those that are accessible to the public, with parking and trails.

Woodman Fen: 2409 Newcastle Dr., Dayton.

Dull Woods: 8199 Cole St., Brookville. This unique eight-acre woodlot is in Clay Township, adjacent the Wolf Creek Trail, and is a high-quality remnant of the vast swamp forests that once covered northwest
Montgomery County.

Huffman Prairie State Natural Landmark: 4439 Lower Valley Pike, Dayton. Located near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and adjacent to the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, where the Wright brothers once tested their planes and is now part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park, late July and early August are a great time to visit for a spectacular display of wildflowers.

Medlar: 4558 Medlar Rd., Miamisburg. This 416-acre area contains mature woods, fields, shrub-scrub habitat, a pond, and a number of created wetlands, with picturesque views while cycling, bird watching or hiking the 2.25-mile Great-Little Trail.

For more information on what to look for when you visit, how to get there, and what makes these areas special, please visit
metroparks.org/conservation

Reach DCP freelance writer Kristen Wicker at KristenWicker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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