Bringing back the wilderness

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trumpeter swans
These trumpeter swans, photographed in the spring of 2021, remained at the William J. Robertson Nature Preserve in Rittman all last winter and are believed to be year-round residents. The average weight of a male trumpeter swan is 26 pounds, making them North America's heaviest flying bird. (Roni Leatherman Photography photo)

European settlers were determined to conquer Ohio’s wilderness and turn it into profitable land. In Rittman, Mayor William Robertson and his army of volunteers have worked for 15 years to turn once-profitable land into wilderness. 

Just two weeks after Robertson was sworn in as mayor in 2005, the city learned Caraustar Industries, a company that once made coated cardboard containers for Tide and nearby Morton Salt, would close the following year. 

When it did, the city was left with 300 acres of buildings with collapsing roofs, ponds used for dumping water filled with paper pulp, and a landfill where the layers of pulp were piled so high that it’s known as Mount Rittman and will be the site of an observation deck. 

For the next six years, “a whole lot of nothing happened,” the mayor said. Then in March of 2012, Hull and Associates and subsidiary Urban Renewables II took ownership of the property. The companies began the cleanup process and redeveloped 100 acres for industry. 

In 2018, the city received a $2.6 million Clean Ohio grant to purchase the remaining 200 acres from Hull and turn it into a nature preserve. 

Not long after the grant was approved, Robertson and his army were out there with loppers, chainsaws and mowing equipment, clearing paths and hacking away at invasive species. Which explains why he got a big surprise at the groundbreaking ceremony in July of last year. Thinking it would be named the Rittman Nature Preserve, Robertson said he “about fell over” when city manager Bobbie Beshara unveiled the sign that read “Mayor William J. Robertson Nature Preserve.” 

Rittman Mayor William Robertson
Rittman Mayor William Robertson has spent uncounted hours trimming trees and doing other jobs at the nature preserve that was named after him during a groundbreaking ceremony last summer. Once a teacher, then a computer programmer, “Mayor Bill” has been assisted by more than 100 volunteers from the community during the 15 years it took to create the preserve. (Roni Leatherman Photography photo)

Nature returns

And nature really has returned to the preserve, which the EPA has approved for recreational use. Songbirds to be seen — and heard — include the rose-breasted grosbeak, great crested flycatcher, willow flycatcher, chickadee and cedar waxwing. Barred owls are frequent guests, and great-horned owls, wild turkeys and some young female pheasants have been spotted. 

A pair of bald eagles has been nesting nearby for the past few years. They come to the preserve at least twice a week to find food for themselves and their eaglets, which usually hatch in April. 

Waterfowl that frequent the ponds include mallards, wood ducks, blue and green heron, kingfishers, cormorants, sandpipers and trumpeter swans. The swans, believed to be a group of bachelors, remained there all last winter. Eastern softshell turtles, salamanders, crayfish, frogs, snakes and green sunfish can be found in many of the 13 ponds on the property. 

The spring peepers are said to be deafening in some areas when it comes time for mating. Mammals that call the preserve home include deer, raccoon, skunk, coyote, red fox, meadow voles, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and beaver. The latter keep taking down trees, building lodges and changing the water flow, so a 150-foot boardwalk was constructed along one of the trails to ensure that it’s passable at all times. 

There are also mink, which are solitary animals and so shy most people don’t know they’re there. However, there are other animals that are quite industrious after dark and aren’t shy about leaving evidence of their activities. 

Mink
Mink are loners and very shy, doing most of their hunting at dawn and dusk. They prey on small mammals, especially rodents, but fish, frogs, snakes, waterfowl and insects are also on the menu. This one was spotted in a swampy area near the parking lot of the Mayor William J. Robertson Nature Preserve in Rittman. (Roni Leatherman Photography photo)

“Every morning we’d find piles and piles of seaweed all around the big 20-acre pond,” said Jim Trogdon, the preserve’s environmental education adviser. 

Mounds of aquatic vegetation were also found on the pond’s launch, which was created so that people who use wheelchairs can get their canoes and kayaks into the water easily, he said. Photos were sent to the division of wildlife, but they couldn’t ID any suspects. Finally, a trail cam caught the culprits: muskrats. 

“We said, ‘OK, we caught you guys.’ They were piling plants on the kayak launch as a winter food source,” Trogdon said. 

Trogdon grew up in Rittman. His father took him fishing on the south side of the railroad tracks that divide the preserve. They fished in what was called the sinkhole because “a train engine supposedly sank there,” he said. 

As a grownup, Trogdon taught science and environmental education, first at Rittman, then for Coventry schools. That’s where he met Jamey Emmert, wildlife communications specialist for District 3 of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. He was soon taking his classes to District 3 headquarters in Portage Lakes. 

When he retired in 2020, Trogdon was asked by “Mayor Bill,” who he’s known for 50 years, to bring his teaching skills to the preserve. A big part of his new job is turning the transformer station that powered the cardboard plant into an education center. 

First Energy is helping with a $42,000 grant, installing a new steel roof with solar panels, and a weather station. Morton Salt is doing the construction, doubling the power house’s space with a deck. 

Emmert did an owl prowl last fall and will be doing many more programs in the future, Trogdon said. She brought a grant from the division of wildlife that includes money for chimney swift towers where the birds can build nests. Other birdhouses will be placed on the remaining power poles, and Wayne Savings Community Bank has donated bat houses. 

Volunteers

Last fall, Cuyahoga Valley National Park Ranger Josh Bates headed the planting of 500 trees donated by Ohio Edison. He was assisted by students from Rittman and Norwayne high schools, First Energy staff and volunteers from the community — along with Mayor Bill’s volunteers. 

The list of those who have helped him over the years now numbers more than 100. 

Pollinator gardens have been started, and a half-acre of native plants went in the ground last year. Students helped plant native milkweed to attract monarch butterflies and will plant some live milkweed soon. 

Trails

The preserve has about 7 miles of walking trails, including ADA accessible trails that are 6 feet wide and made of crushed limestone. Some of the trails are called “rustic,” where paths have been cleared to get visitors to the ponds. The trails are open now, but there will be a grand opening of the preserve June 4 at 11 a.m. The ribbon-cutting will take place at 85 Morningstar Drive, near the kayak launch. 

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill and his army are still out there, cutting back branches from trails and fighting never-ending battles with invasive species like tree of heaven, Russian olive and the dreaded phragmites, which chokes out cattails and other beneficial plants and is so thick that it prevents deer and other animals from getting to the ponds. 

“But it’s not going to look like a park,” Robertson said of the trimming efforts. “We’re just going to keep the grass back from the trails, and mow the rustic trails.” 

In other words, the preserve is the opposite of “build it and they will come.” In this case, the goal was to tamp down things built by man and bring back the wilderness. 

Judging by the 76 bird species that have been documented by Audubon and eBird, and the many other species that have come to depend on the preserve’s resources, that goal is being reached. “It really shows how the Earth has the ability to heal itself,” Trogdon said. 

willow flycatchers
Though they’re long-distance migrants that winter in Mexico and Central and South America, willow flycatchers can be seen in the summer and fall at the Mayor William J. Robertson Nature Preserve in Rittman. Known for their fitz-bew call that sounds like a sneeze, they feast on bugs that they catch in flight or while hovering over leaves. (Roni Leatherman Photography photo)

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