From overgrown lot to nature area — SWCD Conservation Area 10 years later

Sarah Hawley

November 17, 2013

RUTLAND — This time 11 years ago, an overgrown wooded area was situated just off New Lima Road between Rutland and Harrisonville — today it is a 174-acre conservation area.

The Meigs Soil and Water Conservation Area is located just off New Lima Road near Rutland, in the Leading Creek Watershed, and features outdoor activities for nearly everyone.

The conservation area is 174 acres that include wetlands, prairies, streams and ridges. The 2.5-acre wetland was constructed in 2008 and is home to many water creatures as the youth at the camp discovered.

The area is open to the public for general use, hiking, bird watching and other activities. There is a 1.5-mile hiking path and a quarter-mile walking path on the property that can be used by the public. A shelter house constructed a few years ago can also be used for picnics at the conservation area.

The project — to make the conservation area what it is today — began one year before the official acquisition date of June 13, 2003.

On Oct. 24, 2002, Meigs SWCD approved the Clean Ohio Agreement for the “Little Leading Creek Riparian Acquisition Project” in the amount of $172,493, with a donation from the George Thompson, property owner, making up the remainder of the balance for the $229,990 purchase.

Meigs SWCD Wildlife Specialist Jim Freeman gave much of the credit for the conservation area to board member Joe Bolin who found the property for the project.

In the weeks after approval by the board, representatives from Meigs SWCD walked portions of the property and had the property surveyed.

On June 13, 2003, the district officially acquired the property from CETM Inc., represented by Thompson and Brian Christman. Representing the Meigs SWCD Board of Supervisors were Supervisors Bill Baer and Joe Bolin. The property was purchased for $229,990 of which $172,493 came from the Clean Ohio Green Space Conservation Fund with the remainder donated by Thompson, which comprised the “match” for the matching grant.

Since that time, a great deal of work has went into making the conservation area what it has become.

When the Meigs SWCD first acquired the Conservation Area, the property was in pretty rough shape. The open areas were overgrown with several years’ worth of brush, there were piles of debris apparently from earlier logging and other activities around the entrance to the property, and trails were practically non-existent with the exception of ATV paths. Essentially it was extremely neglected, yet had plenty of potential.

In July 2003, the district enrolled into a cooperative hunting agreement with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources-Division of Wildlife. Also that same year, Jenkins and Freeman walked the property boundaries, putting up the “hunting with permission only” signs, taking photographs and marking the property boundary with flagging and spray paint. In many places the property lines are hard to determine and can only be found by looking for old trees with pieces of barbed wire growing through them, and other indicators like old fence posts or rows of Osage orange trees.

The first event held at the Conservation Area was the Leading Creek Watershed Day Camp on June 16-17, 2004, under the direction of Leading Creek Watershed Coordinator Cynthia Bauers. Topics and activities included: water quality testing stations, discovering the critters in the creek, fish sampling demonstration, exploration of wildlife, water beneath our feet – the importance of groundwater, fun nature crafts, nature hikes with tree and plant identification, recycling activities, wetlands and other activities.

The parking lot was made later that same year.

On April 20, 2006, the district installed a sign near the entrance to the Conservation Area. Prior to that, there was nothing there to distinguish the Conservation Area from any other property in the area. The sign was made by Meigs High School FFA students and reads “Meigs County Soil and Water Conservation Area.” The sign was installed as part of a larger work project which involved staff members, volunteers, board and auxiliary members. The group spent at least one day and part of the next cutting and clearing a path to create an addition to existing paths on the property; when completed the new trail was approximately 1.5 miles in length and made a continuous loop from the field near the parking lot, up the valley to the path along the face of the high wall, around the hill and back down again to the beginning. The path that was made in 2004 became sort of a short-cut path cutting through the middle of the loop.

That year saw the return of the Leading Creek Watershed Day Camp, which has been held every June since.

The new trail was dedicated on Aug. 10, 2006 and named the Pauline H. Atkins Memorial Trail in memory of a lifetime of dedicated community service. Mrs. Atkins’ daughter and son-in-law, Sharon and Robert Jewell, joined by local Boy Scouts and other community members cut a ribbon officially opening the trail to the public.

In March 2007, PDK Construction Company of Pomeroy installed a guardrail at the north side of the parking lot to keep vehicles off of the trail. A gate (which was later stolen) was purchased using money provided by the Buckeye Hills RC&D. Also that spring the district planted nearly 200 American chestnut seedlings on the property with the assistance of Meigs Elementary School fifth graders.

Groundbreaking on the wetland was held on Aug. 2, 2007, and it was designed with education in mind; two viewing “peninsulas” were installed as well as a small island, and two rocky areas were put in to provide habitat and shelter for aquatic creatures. The summer was so dry that water had to be hauled in for compaction of the “keyway” and dam. A water-level control structure was donated by the Agri-Drain Corp. which allows for manipulation of the wetland’s water levels. By the middle of November the wetland was complete but empty, but by spring, 2008 it was completely full and being used for educational purposes. The cost of the wetland was approximately $12,000 with the biggest portion of that coming from the WHIP program and the remainder as “in-kind” match and labor.

In 2008, the district planted a warm-season prairie in the area between the wetland and the county road. That prairie sprang up quickly, unlike the warm-season grass demonstration plots which were broadcast-planted across the road around the same time. Also that year, members of Boy Scout Troop 299 put up bluebird and bat boxes and a wood duck box, along with benches near the wetland and on the Atkins Trail.

The Meigs County Health Department came through in 2009 and funded the construction of a quarter-mile long, handicapped-accessible limestone walking path adjacent to the parking lot. The cost of the walking path was approximately $5,000.

Construction of the 36-by-50-foot shelter house began in the fall of 2010. Completion of the shelter house marked a huge milestone in the Conservation Area; before that time the district would use portable canopies or pop-up shelters for events like picnics or watershed camp, and sometimes we didn’t even have those. The shelter makes it possible to put a large number of people under-roof and partially out of the weather.

The shelter house, which cost approximately $12,000 with the cost shared between the district and AEP was completed that winter and dedicated in spring, 2011. That spring, a former district supervisor built and donated towards the construction of three large picnic tables and built a fourth one which the district paid for. He later cleared brush around the old cannery and built a small bridge between the shelter house and wetland. The picnic tables, which are 16-feet long, were an important addition to the pavilion.

A block latrine was constructed in 2012 for $34,400 from a Community Development Block Grant secured by the Meigs County Grants Office. Since 2004, every time the district wanted to have some sort of function at the Conservation Area it had to rent porta-johns and handwashing stations. The new waterless latrine is of the “pit” type and features two separate rooms and an adjoining storage room. The latrine is connected to the parking lot and picnic shelter by a concrete sidewalk. Staff and volunteers also constructed a “rain garden” next to the picnic shelter.

This year, 2013, the Conservation Area received a donation from the Ohio River Valley Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation which was used to purchase a water tap and install waterline and a frost-free hydrant at the picnic shelter. In addition, upgrades and improvements to the Atkins Trail were made using a $600 donation provided by the Buckeye Hills RC&D.

Over those past 10 years, hundreds of children and adults have attended field trips, day camps, nature hikes and other events at the Conservation Area.

“The Conservation Area is a special place for SWCD employees, and especially to myself,” added Freeman. “I have spent numerous enjoyable hours here and have special memories of the Conservation Area, its trails, woods and other areas. I know it’s owned by the people of Meigs County, but I definitely take a measure of pride in ownership in what we have created here, and keep it strictly in charge to maintain this land for the people of the county and for those generations yet to come.”

Despite the changes over the years, the Conservation Area remains true to the original intent to leave the land in a natural state so it can be used for educational purposes and so other people can enjoy its quiet, natural beauty by strolling along its trails, watching wildlife or just connecting with the world out-of-doors. You won’t find any ball fields or playground equipment there, which is partly due to the conditions imposed by the Clean Ohio Grant.

Before you visit the Conservation Area, the Meigs SWCD staff makes the following recommendations: Wear weather-appropriate clothing and footwear suitable for outdoor activity; bring adequate sunscreen and insect repellent; Anticipate steep hills, mud, water, rocks, briars, poison ivy, bugs, snakes and other natural hazards; Avoid playing near high walls and NEVER enter old coal mining auger holes or other entrances; There are NO RESTROOMS unless reserved in advance; Generally, cell phones DO NOT work at the Conservation Area; People with physical disabilities, very old or very young, or just simply out of shape will find portions of the Meigs SWCD Conservation Area to be inaccessible. Know your limitations; Other people or hunters (in season) may be using the Conservation Area at the same time as you; be courteous and respectful to others you find enjoying the Conservation Area; Absolutely no ATVs are permitted. Park only in designated areas; Please leave the Conservation Area cleaner than you found it. Take only photographs and leave only footprints.

The Meigs SWCD Conservation Area is open to the public and permission is not needed for general use, hiking, bird watching and other non-consumptive activities. Group and school activities including educational field trips, “field days” and other outings should be scheduled through Meigs SWCD Education Coordinator Jenny Ridenour who may be able to assist you or help avoid potentially troubling conflicts.

Meigs County SWCD Wildlife Specialist and Sunday Times-Sentinel contributor Jim Freeman contributed to this report.