Youth from the Groundwork Cincinnati - Millcreek Green Team visit the Edge of Appalachia
Groundwork Cincinnati Youth Youth from the Groundwork Cincinnati - Millcreek Green Team visit the Edge of Appalachia © Randall L. Schieber

Stories in Ohio

Cultivating Conservationists

The Nature Conservancy strives to connect people with nature. In Ohio, we are involved with several programs that help strengthen that connection.

Connecting Kids with Nature

Janet Grout says the schools in northeast Ohio’s Ashtabula County face a tough challenge: Their students are underperforming in science. A retired schoolteacher, Grout believes part of the solution may lie just minutes away, at The Nature Conservancy’s Morgan Swamp Preserve.

Within the preserve is the Grand River Conservation Campus, a peaceful setting of facilities and grounds used for habitat conservation, recreation and environmental education. With a new environmental education center opening this summer, the Campus is the first of its kind in the county, providing learning opportunities that have been developed with school curriculum in mind.

“The best way to learn something is to experience it,” Grout says. “We know this as teachers.”

That’s why Grout eagerly stepped in to help when she heard about plans to utilize an outdoors camp donated to the Conservancy by The City Mission, a Cleveland-based charity that had previously used the site as a retreat. For more than two years, she has led a team of about 20 volunteers—half of them retired schoolteachers—who have helped transform the site into a valuable resource for the community.

“Janet and other volunteers have already led field trips for more than 200 students from nearby schools,” says the Conservancy’s Karen Seidel, who first envisioned the property’s potential.

University Students Get On-The-Job Skills

Similarly, nearby Lake Erie College students also have begun using the preserve for their on-the-ground education needs, and the school’s administration is working to establish a permanent field research station on site.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, outside Toledo, the Conservancy’s Kitty Todd Preserve Manager Ryan Gauger is overseeing a land stewardship training program that has engaged dozens of University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University students.

“Too many university students leave their academic careers and move into the workforce without having hands-on experience,” Gauger says. “So we developed trainings that cover real land stewardship needs—in some instances grooming our own future employees.”

One such example is Maureen Bogdanski, who in 2013 was an environmental science major at the University of Toledo when she became one of the first students involved with the program.

“We wanted on-the-job skills,” Bogdanski says. “So our professor worked with Ryan to get us trained to facilitate prescribed burns and other restoration work.”

Last year, Bogdanski was hired by the Conservancy as a seasonal restoration assistant, helping to restore the type of wetland and prairie habitat the region is known for. The Toledo native says the whole experience left her with a greater appreciation of what’s in her backyard.

“A lot of people don’t realize what we have,” she says. “If they haven’t been there, they don’t get it.”

Urban Youth Get Their Feet Wet

That’s a notion that also resonates deeply for Tucker Coombe, a trustee for the Conservancy in Ohio.

She’s one of several trustees in the Cincinnati region who are championing a new partnership between the Conservancy and Groundwork Cincinnati, which aims to revitalize the urban Mill Creek and its neighboring communities—including through the engagement of Cincinnati’s Public School District.

“The collaboration is giving students the chance to compare and contrast their local Mill Creek with that of Ohio Brush Creek, a healthy stream running through our Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County,” Coombe says.

For high school senior Aristotle Buie, the opportunity to explore Ohio Brush Creek was, in his words, “awesome.”

“We can’t really get into Mill Creek because of the combined sewer overflows,” Buie says. “So it was awesome to actually be in a clean creek with the crawdads, frogs and fish.”

As part of Groundwork Cincinnati’s Green Team, Buie and other students explored Ohio Brush Creek alongside Edge of Appalachia Preserve Naturalist Rich McCarty.

“Some of these kids had never been in a forest,” McCarty says. “So just being out in a natural landscape was amazing to them.” 

Fostering Appreciation

McCarty knows full well just how impressionable a trip to his preserve can be. The lifelong Adams County resident and 20-year veteran of the Conservancy has borne witness over the years to hundreds of local children exploring the preserve as part of annual school field trips.

Some 1,300 county school children from Ohio Valley Local and Manchester Local School Districts visit the preserve for free each year through programming facilitated by Cincinnati Museum Center, the Conservancy’s preserve partner.

“The kids get fired up about how special their county is,” McCarty says. “And that’s where a lot of the value is. “They’ll go home and share what they’ve learned with their parents. And then the parents ask me what’s going on at the preserve. They become interested, too.”

In a world stricken by fast-paced land conversion, accessible natural areas for study and play may become increasingly important in shaping the next generation’s attitudes about the environment. Studies show that childhood nature experiences are an important pathway to adult perceptions and behaviors about the environment. Furthermore, a lack of nature in kids’ lives has been linked to rises in obesity, attention disorders and depression.

For Buie, experiencing the natural world already has sparked in him a desire to protect it.

“I’m thinking I’ll go into environmental law in college,” he says.

One day, Buie will take care of nature. For now, sometimes it’s the other way around.

“When I have a stressful day at school, I go and take a hike. That always calms me down,” he says.