"We need to make sure that animals don't get cut off from adjoining habitats, so that they can move around in search of food and shelter, and even adjust to temperature increases brought about by climate change."
Pete Whan, Appalachian forest program manager
By Jessica Keith
“The health of Ohio’s forests will be determined at places like this.” Pete Whan sits next tome in an oversized white pickup truck, his eyes scanning the rough landscape over which we’re slowly bumping.
I’m in the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio with The Nature Conservancy’s Appalachian forest program manager, exploring an exceptionally verdant ridgetop on a stretch of road called Sunshine Ridge—and trying to stay dry as an early August storm makes its way across the hillsides.
“There were times when some of these hilltops were farmed,” he says, as rain begins to beat on the roof of the truck, “but those kind of hardscrabble farms produced very little, just enough for a family, really, and most were abandoned during the 1930s and 1940s.” Whan is explaining tome why the area around us remains predominantly forested, despite the fields of soybeans, corn and tobacco that patchwork most of the privately owned lands elsewhere in the region.
It’s this rich forest habitat—and accompanying biodiversity—that the Conservancy seeks to protect over the coming years. But it’s not just biodiversity that’s caught the eye of the Conservancy; the 6,000 acres along Sunshine Ridge also happen to link the organization’s 14,000-acre Richard and Lucile Durrell Edge of Appalachia Preserve System with the 60,000-acre Shawnee State Forest, just some 2½ miles away at their closest points.
Seizing the Moment
“Development pressure is coming, and this forest is going to disappear,” Whan says of the urgent need to bridge the gap in protected areas. “We need to make sure that animals don’t get cut off from adjoining habitats, so that they can move around in search of food and shelter, and even adjust to temperature increases brought on by climate change.”
In addition to development pressures, Whan says that unsustainable timber harvesting also is a threat in the region. I glance around, and quickly see what he means. The project area’s 150-some properties contain varying stands of trees. Some show off mature oaks, while others sport mere saplings—the aftermath of a recent lumbering.
But for the most part, the forest here seems to have been left alone for at least a few decades, due in part to absent landowners. I spot a few remaining tobacco fields and modest homes as we travel down the ridgetop road, but there seem to be more century-old family cemeteries dotting the roadside than anything else.
These minor manmade obstacles seem to do little to deter the wildlife that Whan says have occurred within the forest, like bear and bobcat, or imperiled bird species such as the cerulean warbler, wood thrush and scarlet tanager. “This project area represents a great opportunity to protect sparsely populated forest,” he says of the biologically rich, and affordable, land.
Whan says that by protecting this area, the Conservancy not only will safeguard many rare plants and animals, but also support clean drinking water. “Part of the reason we’ve designed this protection project the way we have is because the ridge marks the beginning of headwaters for two different watersheds—Stout Run and Scioto Brush Creek,” he says. “It’s really important to protect the headwaters in order to maintain the quality of water in the creeks below.”
In It for the Long Haul
Whan, who helped define the project and who is now helping to find funding opportunities and coordinate acquisitions, says that it could take up to a decade to piece together the bulk of this protection puzzle. But he’s already made some headway.
“We already own more than 800 acres along this corridor, and we’re currently working on acquiring about 250 additional acres,” Whan says, referring to an offer he submitted just days before my arrival.
I do the math: just some 5,000 acres more to go, one piece at a time, I think. But Whan seems undeterred. He’s fully aware of the project’s ambitious scope, but he also knows that the landscape that folds out below him is just too precious to let slip away from the next generation.
As we ease downhill out of the forest and edge back into civilization, I look back and watch as the sun finally breaks through the clouds, its light casting heavenly streams through the trees. It’s in this moment I see in this land what Whan sees—the future of Ohio’s natural heritage.
Jessica Keith is a marketing specialist-writer for The Nature Conservancy