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Latest News: Restoration Stories

Healthy Forest, Healthy Wildlife: The Wilds, Cumberland, Ohio

Thursday, September 3, 2020  
Posted by: Alexis Gibson
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Restoration Stories are a deeper look at stories behind our Restoration Resource Center Featured Project. This month we're featuring the Healthy Forests, Healthy Wildlife project from the Wilds in Columbus Ohio. The goal of this project was to try to restore the understories of reclaimed forests. Between 2017 and early 2019, restoration efforts in the “Healthy Forest, Healthy Wildlife” area included invasive species removal, native plantings, and constructing animal shelters. All steps to restore this ecosystem involved local school groups as volunteers. This allowed the project to foster close relationships with high school students and teachers, teaching conservation through hands on experience conducting forest restoration.

" I look forward to things like checking our song and bat meters to see what birds have been calling and bats echolocating around the site, and walking past the vernal pools as frogs plop in the water."

A Focal Area for Tourism and Ecology

Historically, eastern Ohio was extensive deciduous forest and dominated by oaks. In the 1800s, the area that is now The Wilds was largely converted to agriculture. From the 1940s-1980s, 90% of the Wilds landscape was surface mined for coal, including the area that is now the Healthy Forest, Healthy Wildlife (HFHW) site. The mining and reclamation in the HFHW site was completed in the early 1980s. In addition to loss of forest cover, several mammal species (bear, bobcat, cougar) were extirpated and other forest dependent species declined.

Since 1984, The Wilds has become a well-known conservation organization, both for its work maintaining and breeding endangered animals from across the world, but also for the ecological restoration work being done for land and wildlife. The Wilds has become a focal area for tourism and ecology in Muskingum county and an important part of the rural community here.

Overcoming a Legacy of Mining 

One of the legacies of the mining reclamation is extensive spread of invasive species, particularly autumn olive and Ailanthus tree of heaven. The plot that became the HFHW plot at one time was a stop on visitor tours with a trail through the area. Before the beginning of our project in 2017, the area had become choked with autumn olive and other invasives dominating the understory, such that it was nearly impossible to walk through. There remained some tree canopy species such as honey locust, sycamore, and aspen, but it did not have the structural aspects of a functioning deciduous forest.

 A before and after shot of the same spot just a few months after invasive removal of autumn olive. 

While The Wilds has become well known for the grassland habitat that characterizes post-mining reclamation (due to its ability to support large exotic mammals such as rhinos and giraffes, as well as serving as key habitat for declining grassland birds), the historic condition of The Wilds is forest, and so the majority of native wildlife here are associated with forests. The major problem with restoring forest on reclaimed mineland like The Wilds is getting trees to grow due to the compacted soil with poor nutrients, and an advantage of the HFHW plot was that there were already some trees growing, albeit in a degraded condition.

Furthermore, the exact location of the HFHW plot has a couple of major advantages. First, it is centrally located within the Wilds and adjacent to a recently restored wetland. This provides an opportunity for the HFHW to increase connectivity overall and link aquatic and terrestrial environments. Second, while it is no longer a stop on visitor tours, it is along the bus route on the way to our carnivore facility and so visitors can see the improvement in the forest and our team actively working to remove invasives and plant native species.

The major challenges are a combination of poor soil (low nutrients and carbon), the prevalence of invasive species both within and around the HFHW plot, and high herbivory pressure from deer, rabbits, and small mammals. Our team has worked hard to clear invasives like autumn olive, and the difference is night and day, but it requires constant vigilance. We are planting native vegetation but it often takes years to begin to grow and thrive in the existing soil conditions, all while under browsing pressure. For wildlife habitat improvement, the lack of structures like snags and wetlands is certainly a challenge - we’ve had to largely construct our own versions of these habitat types in the forest.

 Constructed vernal pool.

On the positive side of things, the shrubs we planted have seemed to grow well thus far despite the poor soils and challenging conditions. However, one surprise is that native species diversity hasn't increased so far in the areas where we’ve planted native shrubs compared to unplanted areas.

Focusing on Native Biodiversity

Installing a bat roost tower on the edge of healthy forest.

Our vision is to restore a patch of Appalachian foothill deciduous forest that is characterized by native trees and understory shrubs, is resistant to invasion by non-natives in the periphery and supports the entire community of wildlife found in eastern Ohio forests - species like Indiana bats, Cerulean warblers, wood frogs and bobcats. We want to continue to expand the footprint of the project across The Wilds. The HFHW will serve as a model for other forested landscapes degraded by mining and our approach will be applied in those landscapes.

It is amazing to see how open the understory is now that the autumn olive has been removed, and now springtime warblers are passing though and box turtles are crawling through the understory. I look forward to things like checking our song and bat meters to see what birds have been calling and bats echolocating around the site, and walking past the vernal pools as frogs plop in the water.

I’m really hoping to see a steady increase in native biodiversity each year and continuing to expand the plot (we will have restored 70 acres within the next couple of years). I want to be able to hike through the plot and see saplings emerging and no sign of autumn olive and Ailanthus. To hear a springtime chorus of amphibians and bats roosting in the summer.

A Model Approach for Other Degraded Forests

We initially submitted the the HFHW project to the Restoration Resource Center because we see it as a model approach for forest restoration that could be applied elsewhere in degraded forests. Thus far we definitely consider this project a success and we are really proud of what the restoration department has been able to do with this project and look forward to future success.



Text submitted by Stephen Spear, Director of Wildlife Ecology at the Wilds

Interested in being our Featured Project? Get in touch! All projects included in the Restoration Resource Center project database are eligible; projects with detailed information and photos are prioritized.