When Howard Marsh Metropark opens later this month, 1,000 acres of critically important habitat will return to the Lake Erie shore, and Metroparks Toledo will be a step closer to fulfilling its promise of a park within 5 miles of every home in Lucas County, Ohio.
Western Lake Erie is an international destination for birding, fishing and boating. Around Easter, the “spring run” on the Maumee River attracts walleye fishermen from across Ohio and neighboring states. Closer to Mother’s Day, birders from around the world descend on the Lake Erie marshes to add dozens of species to their life lists. Yet, the region has also made national news in recent years because of water-quality issues. Dave Zenk, executive director of Metroparks Toledo, believes Howard Marsh will help restore the lake and, with it, the region’s reputation. “This area is an outdoor lover’s paradise, with world-class natural features, yet, as far as we’ve come, we still have room for improvement,” he says. “[Howard Marsh] is the largest project we’ve ever undertaken, one of our most important projects from an ecological standpoint, and it is extremely timely for our region given the recent troubles we’ve experienced with Lake Erie.”
In a region of Ohio where outdoor enthusiasts celebrate spring holidays with walleye, warblers and watercraft, this new park near the Lake Erie shore will expand those fishing, birding and paddling opportunities. The biggest beneficiary of all, however, may be the lake itself.
Metroparks Toledo established its first park on the river’s edge nearly 90 years ago, and today has five parks overlooking the water. Howard Marsh Metropark will be the 16th park in the 12,000-acre park system and the closest to the lake.
Just six months ago, blue-green algae oozed into a kayak cove at Middlegrounds Metropark in downtown Toledo. It wasn’t the first time the iridescent slime had plagued the region. The potentially toxic algae made national headlines in August 2014 when it prompted the city of Toledo to issue a drinking water advisory for parts of three days.
Phosphorus runoff from agricultural lands upstream is the primary culprit of this recurring problem. It contributes to the growth of algae, which produces toxins as it decays in Lake Erie, the source of drinking water for 11 million people.
Contributing to the water-quality woes is the loss of natural wetlands, which function like kidneys, filtering out excess nutrients that cause algae blooms, while providing critical fish and wildlife habitat. Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth — comparable to rainforests and coral reefs, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These systems support more than one-third of the threatened and endangered wildlife species in the United States, while providing natural water-quality improvements and flood protection.
Half of the wetlands in the Great Lakes basin are gone. In Western Lake Erie, where just 10 percent of the original 300,000 acres of wetland remain, every acre counts. “According to the scientific literature, one acre of restored Lake Erie coastal wetland can remove 13 pounds of phosphorus from the water per year,” says Tim Schetter, Ph.D., director of natural resources for Metroparks Toledo. Howard Marsh, currently the largest new wetland restoration project on the Great Lakes, will take hundreds of acres near the lakeshore — approximately 750 now and 250 in the future — from a willing landowner out of agricultural production and re-create a marsh wetland as a buffer between land and lake.
Establish Strong Partnerships
The property, known historically as Howard Farms, is the last remaining large tract of land in the Western Lake Erie marsh region. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife has been interested in the property for more than 20 years, but was not able to come to terms with the owner.
When Metroparks successfully negotiated an agreement in 2008, the Division of Wildlife contributed half of the $6 million purchase price. Metroparks and the Division of Wildlife entered into a management agreement for fishing, hunting, trapping and wildlife recreation and conservation at the marsh. A $1.76 million grant from the Clean Ohio Fund Greenspace Conservation Program and $1.24 million from Metroparks paid for the other half of the purchase price.
Converting Howard Farms into Howard Marsh required additional partnerships and funding. Metroparks contracted with Ducks Unlimited, the international wetlands conservation organization, to design the wetland habitat infrastructure, and with SmithGroupJRR, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to design the public amenities infrastructure. Ducks Unlimited also obtained a $2.8 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, to assist with construction.
The Division of Wildlife committed a total of $4 million to help fund the wetland restoration, with Metroparks providing a 25 percent match. The division’s contribution was reimbursed with dollars from the federal Pittman-Robertson Act, an excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment that was used to fund habitat restoration.
“Successful conservation requires multilevel private/public partnerships, as modeled here at Howard Marsh and elsewhere in the Western Lake Erie Basin,” says Gildo Tori, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited’s Great Lakes/Atlantic Region. “The complexities of habitat conservation in areas that have been greatly altered provide challenges that demand creative thinking and innovative action that often requires diverse partnerships. Then, there is the funding puzzle to solve as well! Using private/public partnerships to leverage and multiply different funding pots makes these mega-habitat restoration projects doable.”
Mark Haynes Construction of Norwalk, Ohio, began construction in June 2016 and finished last fall after moving approximately 700,000 cubic yards of dirt — enough to fill the first 24 floors of the Empire State Building. Nearly 30,000 tons of stone was hauled in, and before the project is done, 12,000 trees and shrubs will be planted. By opening day, thanks to new pumps capable of moving 1.2 million gallons per hour, the property will be mostly flooded with lake water from a channel. The main pump, according to Schetter, could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in 33 minutes.
“It’s been an amazing transformation,” says Denis Franklin, a Metroparks natural resources department supervisor who has overseen the project from the start. “It’s hard to imagine just 18 months ago this was a farm field.
“Since construction started,” Franklin continues, “the project has generated interest from local, state and federal agencies, as well as from neighbors, nature lovers and local business groups. We’ve given more than 70 tours since the project began. It’s rare to see something like this, especially on this scale.”
Among the site’s visitors was a CNN crew, which visited last summer to interview Ducks Unlimited’s Tori for a story about the potential loss of funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an issue that has recently cropped up again.
Create More Room to Roam
Placing a park near the lakeshore has been a priority for Metroparks Toledo for several years. Providing additional parkland is a strategic initiative begun in 2002 when nearly two-thirds of Lucas County electors voted in favor of a property tax levy to acquire additional parkland for the future. The “land levy” fueled the greatest era of growth in the park district’s history, leading to the opening of the first new parks in four decades.
“Since that time, we have added 4,500 acres, from the globally significant Oak Openings Region on the west side of the county, to this property near our eastern border,” explains Scott J. Savage, president of the Board of Park Commissioners, the governing body of Metroparks Toledo. “Without this property, we could not make good on another promise: to have a Metropark within 5 miles of every resident of Lucas County. With so little of the original Lake Erie wetlands remaining, being able to restore 1,000 acres so close to the shore is a rare opportunity.”
With more than 6 miles of hiking trails and another 6 miles of permanent, deep-water channel for fishing and kayaking through nearly 600 acres of marsh, the park will provide new recreational outlets while creating habitat for migrating birds and spawning fish.
“Howard Marsh will be a special place where people with varied recreational interests can enjoy the wonders of a Great Lakes coastal wetland,” says Steve Madewell, who was executive director of Metroparks Toledo when construction began and for whom a 1,300-foot boardwalk trail there will be named. “Without a doubt, Metroparks is bringing an element to Howard Marsh that adds a wonderful dimension: excellent public access for a broad range of activities.”
Expand the Natural Habitat
Adjacent to Howard Marsh is the Metzger Marsh Wildlife area. Just down the road are the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area and the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (Ohio’s only federal refuge) and nearby is Maumee Bay State Park. Combined, these Lake Erie marshlands create a habitat complex that is critically important because more than half the endangered and threatened birds in the state require wetlands for part of their life cycle.
Birds bring birders, which is good news for local businesses too, especially during the “shoulder seasons” (time between peak and off-peak seasons) in spring and fall when other forms of tourism are light. There are nearly 2.4 million birders in the state, and Ohio Sea Grant research completed in 2012 shows that bird watching along Ohio’s Lake Erie coast contributes more than $26 million annually and 283 jobs to northern Ohio’s economy.
Historically, 37 species of warblers and more than 300 species of birds have been seen at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, making it recognized worldwide as a top birding destination for songbird migration. Annually, 70,000 to 80,000 people visit Magee Marsh in the six-week period from mid-April through May during the songbird migration. The Biggest Week in American Birding, a 10-day event that’s based at Maumee Bay State Park and sponsored by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, attracted visitors from 47 states and 20 countries last year!
Marshes are also important breeding grounds for fish in a region that calls itself the Walleye Capital of the World. Walleye fishing on Ohio’s 2.24-million-acre share of Lake Erie is a $600-million-a-year industry.
Connect More People with the Outdoors
In August 2017, with most of the groundwork completed but the marsh not yet flooded, Metroparks invited elected officials to see the property, as they would never again be able to see it. Under a large tent to fend off the cold onshore winds, local and state officials mingled with Metroparks supporters and a group of 50 visitors on a tour hosted by Ducks Unlimited.
Also in attendance was Ohio Governor John Kasich, who spoke about the recreational and tourism aspects of the project. “We need to tell the world about that,” Kasich said. “We need to do a better job of telling people what’s here.”
For Metroparks, the economic impact on the region helps build the case for support of the agency’s conservation mission. “More parks and trails will connect more people with the outdoors, and that’s ultimately what we are all about,” says Zenk, who has been with the park system 11 years and executive director for just more than a year. “We have to keep upping our game, providing new experiences to give people reasons to keep coming back. Putting a park within only a few minutes of every single person in the district breaks down a lot of barriers and improves economic development across the county.”
Scott Carpenter is Director of Public Relations for Metroparks Toledo.