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Waist-Deep in Conservation

Newest Preserve Protects Lake Erie Marshland

By: Randy Edwards

Mary Ann McCullough remembers paddling a canoe through West Harbor Basin from the time that she was 11, when her father bought a large swath of marshland and upland just south of Catawba Island. It was a place of gentle beauty and abundant wildlife, she recalls.

“Oh, the ducks and the geese! If I had fifty cents for every time someone knocked on our door and wanted to hunt the marsh,” she says. “One year we had a large flock of whistling (tundra) swans come into the marsh. Some guys came up from Ohio State to study them, because they hadn’t seen so many all in one place.”

Her father, Floyd L. McCullough, was a successful developer who, in the 1960s and ‘70s, built marinas and lakeside homes from the east side of Toledo to the west side of Cleveland. Much of the land around West Harbor became vacation homes and boat slips. But the marshes where Mary Ann paddled as a child remain, and she has recently sold them to The Nature Conservancy.

The Conservancy’s newest nature preserve consists of more than 150 acres of marsh and surrounding upland in Ottawa County just south of Catawba Island and across the road from East Harbor State Park. A Clean Ohio Conservation Fund grant helped pay for the land, as did a bargain sale from Mary Ann McCullough and a generous bequest from the estate of Pauline B. Miller of Tiffin, who loved nature and was avid in its preservation.

The preserve eventually will be open to the public for bird-watching, fishing and hiking. A small launching area for kayaks and canoes also is planned. About half of this as-of-yet unnamed preserve is covered in classic Lake Erie marshland, blanketed each summer with water lotus and dotted with muskrat houses. The marshes are part of the West Harbor Basin, a long, narrow pool of Lake Erie backwater that geologists believe was once the channel of the Portage River. As the last wave of glaciation receded and Lake Erie’s water level rose, the river naturally rerouted itself to empty into the lake at Port Clinton instead of nearby East Harbor State Park. Now this harbor is a haven for waterfowl and wading birds, says Terry Seidel, the Conservancy’s director of protection in Ohio.

When he first visited the property the open fields adjacent to the wetlands were planted in pumpkins and gourds. Still, he says, he could picture those fields restored to natural habitat and a beautiful nature preserve.

“What sticks in my mind is the sweeping view of West Harbor and the abundance of great egrets feeding in the marsh,” he says, referring to the large, white wading birds native to this part of Lake Erie. “If you live inland, it’s pretty impressive to see 50 or so of these big birds in different clusters in the shallow waters.”

This project will contribute to the Conservancy’s goal, working with partners, to protect and restore an additional 10,000 acres of coastal habitat along Lake Erie.


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