Once upon a time, the land that would become Ohio was a wild place. Two-hundred and sixty-five years ago, nearly 100% of “Ohio” land was covered in dense, unclaimed forest. Your nearest shopping center was not even a glimmer in someone’s mind. Elk, bobcat, black bear, gray wolf, and even American bison thrived here. Most appealing though, were plentiful beavers, whose fur was literally worth its weight in gold, serving as the driving force behind European exploration of Ohio during the mid-18th century.
After the Revolutionary War, the land we know as “Ohio” was officially named the Ohio Country or Ohio Territory. Enticed by affordable land, anti-slavery legislation, and a massive freshwater lake, migrants from New England, Pennsylvania, and New York rapidly settled the Ohio Country. Like the traders, they continued to hunt game for their fur, but also began to clear forests for valuable lumber and farmland, build mills and factories on Lake Erie and its rivers, and ultimately force many larger predators westward and out of Ohio. As the Industrial Revolution progressed onward, it solidified the mentality that man truly could tame and own the earth. By 1850, all the bobcat, gray wolf, and beavers were gone from Ohio, as were most of the native peoples. Ohio was no longer a wild place, but instead home to two-million settlers, and two of the country’s most powerful cities, Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Today, many people think of Ohio and the Midwest as being quite tame, known more for for mini-vans and golden retrievers than bears and bobcats. It can be difficult to recognize remnants of Ohio’s former wilderness around you. However, thanks to stringent legislation and environmental activism, 31% of Ohio is forested. “Forested,” however, does not mean we have rampant, ecologically rich wilderness like we did 265 years ago. Only 1% of the forest is protected in parks and reservations; the other 30% is timberland or privately owned by Ohio citizens. In fact, though Cleveland Metroparks is immensely distinguished in the scheme of park systems, our Emerald Necklace is a thin ribbon compared to the privately-owned development surrounding it.
Since you are reading this blog, it’s likely that you have an interest in nature and consider it valuable in more ways than the fur traders did. With that in mind, fathom this statement carefully: Nearly 5-million people control the 94-million privately-owned acres of forest in Ohio, the 30% not formally protected from development. This means that the health of our forests is mostly influenced by people who can possibly choose to develop their land in the future. The truth is, with the price of lumber and land on the rise, it will be tempting for people to consider selling their property for development. Ecological changes are imminent; however, if you are one of those people who look upon nature dearly, there are things you can do now and in the future to ensure Ohio will always have backwoods.
Interestingly, you need not own acres of forest to encourage ecological prosperity. Nature can work with us, after all, we are part of it. Much of the forest in Ohio isn’t actually “forest” per se. Forest, according to the Ohio Division of Wildlife, can be a few trees in a fenced-in backyard with a mowed lawn. Even on official land-cover maps of Ohio, Cleveland Heights to Akron is colored green for “mixed forest.” That being said, Ohio doesn’t have as much forest as “31% forest coverage” leads you to believe. However, if you are one of those people with a manicured lawn and an oak tree, you absolutely still matter in the scheme of ecological development and you don’t have to make drastic sacrifices! For example, consider planting native wildflowers and plants in your yard. Doing so will create mini-habitats for critters, especially attractive ones like butterflies and birds. The smaller critters are very important in ecology because they support larger fauna and often act as pollinators. Additionally, if you have fenced property, consider leaving a small opening in the fence, perhaps even just 6 inches high and a foot long, near the ground to allow squirrels and raccoons to pass from yard to yard. Doing so will connect your property to your neighbors, thereby expanding suburban habitat for wildlife, and still allowing you to preserve your privacy. Otherwise, our pockets of “forest” are not even part of the same system. However, if you are one of those people willing to make a very forward contribution to preserving wild places, you may want to consider donating your land to a protected park system or creating a plan for loved ones to take care of your land in the future.
Being a steward of the forest and rivers need not exist only in the realm of private property. Always respect and follow guidelines posted in protected wildlife areas, such as never taking or damaging any property or wild creatures. However, please do enjoy them and allow them to thrive in wild Ohio!