Nearly 50 years ago, the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio caught fire. Although this was not the first occurrence of its kind – the river had caught fire some 13 times since 1868 due to spill-off from the steel mills and factories stretching between Akron and Cleveland – this time, it made national news. A Time Magazine cover. Congressional hearings. The following year, the first Earth Day was held and the Environmental Protection Agency was founded; two years later, the Clean Water Act enshrined the nation’s new water protections into law. Out of tragedy, a new environmental movement had been born.
Observe, Learn, and Perform
Straddling the Cuyahoga River from Botzum in the south to Valley View in the north, the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park stands at the forefront of this conservation movement. “We have a really strong volunteer arm,” explains Ryan Krapf, a park guide and educator who, after performing an SCA internship at the park, was subsequently hired on as a ranger. “We know that volunteers come with experience and skills that it would be a shame to waste, so everyone gets the chance to observe, learn, and then perform.”
Thanks to contributions from park members, the SCA, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Cuyahoga River corridor has found a new lease on life. “For years, people were discouraged from using the river for sports and recreation,” says Krapf. “But now, we are actively telling people to take a second look. The birds, fish, and turtles are back. And thanks to our work, we can finally see the water from the trails. We’re no longer ashamed of the river, which is a wonderful thing.”
(An American coot steps on a log at Cuyahoga National Park.)
Along with trail maintenance, much of the volunteer work in the park is focused on invasive plant removal. In addition to acting as a transportation corridor for fish and other wildlife, the Cuyahoga River also plays an active role in seed dispersal. Unfortunately, over the years, non-native plants such as privet (a decorative plant brought by the workers on the Erie canal), bush honeysuckle, and autumn olive have crowded out native species, sucking up needed moisture and nutrients. The work, then, consists of removing the invasive plants and, thanks to an on-site native plant nursery, re-seeding with native trees, flowers, and grasses. “With some scouting and a good plan of action, it’s amazing how fast an area can transform,” Krapf notes.
A Backyard for All
“Cuyahoga does some of the best work with the public that I have ever seen,” says Elizabeth Bargdill, a former SCA intern at Cuyahoga who is now a remittance technician at Glacier National Park. “They bring in a very diverse range of volunteer groups, which is very important for an urban national park. It’s important for everyone to know that the park is a backyard for all of us.” These include school groups of all ages and demographics – fostered by ranger visits to classrooms – together with groups from volunteer organizations and companies such as Nestlé as part of their corporate social responsibility programs.
(SCA and Nestlé volunteers improve trails at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.)
The ranger’s art consists in making every group – regardless of age or ability level – feel welcome. After an early-morning meeting, using satellite photos to determine plant variety and density in the areas to be worked, rangers split off the group into ideal sizes and head off. “You can set the tone from the beginning for the whole program,” says Krapf. “It’s rare that someone who starts the day nervous ends it that way.” Whereas adult groups may work from two to four hours before getting a well-deserved afternoon off, a children’s group will experience a mixture of work and recreation in the form of a fishing expedition, bike ride, or other activity. A backyard for all, indeed.
Thanks to its proximity to the Erie Canal and the Cuyahoga River’s history as the one-time western border of the United States, the park – which contains historical homes and an early settler’s cemetery – is also an important historical landmark. By restoring the land and the river, then, volunteers are also helping restore a chapter of America’s history.
To find out more about positions with the SCA at Cuyahoga and other areas of historical and natural heritage, click here.