Preserving Portage County and thousands of miles of waterways

1
984
Trail Lake Park
In its third year, Trail Lake Park's meadow restoration project is just starting to hit its peak with a variety of hardier perennials blooming. (Sara Welch photo)

GARRETTSVILLE, Ohio — Sitting on his Kubota lawn tractor looking out over 325 acres of rolling meadows and forests with stretches of Eagle Creek and Silver Creek weaving through the landscape, Stan Carlisle debated what to say next.

“I still enjoy it. It’s a refuge to get away from it all. This has been home for 69 years for me,” he said.

On a sunny afternoon, early in October, Carlisle shared the story of his family farm.

The farm’s history stretches back to 1913 when his grandfather bought and combined three farms. It continues through his father’s dedicated dairy farming days, pushes past the difficult decision to stop milking and ends up at Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve.

“Looking back we should have had more of a conversation about what we wanted to do about it instead of saying ‘I don’t want to milk cows anymore’ but, again, that’s the decision that was made at that time. We’re living with it. We’re moving on,” Carlisle said.

The Portage Park District purchased Hillbrook Farm from Carlisle and his siblings in 2021, giving them an opportunity to preserve their family’s farmland in what is now Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve.

At the time, the farm spanned about 400 acres, the land was being used to grow crops and it was returning a little bit of oil revenue.

Carlisle and his sister, Jane Hill, had originally discussed selling off the back 50 acres of land. However, Christine Craycroft, the executive director of the Portage Park District, wanted to preserve the entire property.

Marty Hill, Jane Hill, Stan Carlisle and Annette Carlisle
Marty Hill, Jane Hill, Stan Carlisle and Annette Carlisle stand in front of what is now Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve. Although they sold their family’s farmland to Portage Park District in 2021, it will always look like home to them. (Sara Welch photo)

Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve

Since she started at the Portage Park District as one of only two employees in 1996, Craycroft has become somewhat of a master at finding and preserving high-value properties, connecting communities and conserving natural resources in Portage County and beyond.

Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve caught her eye by boasting vital forest and grassland habitats as well as being a critical location for water quality, situated in the upper reaches of the Mahoning River Watershed and adjacent to Headwaters Trail.

Running through the north side of Eagle Creek Greenway preserve, Silver Creek offers the only cold water stream habitat in Portage County and flows south into Eagle Creek. Eagle Creek flows east, eventually entering the Mahoning River where water continues flowing downstream to the Ohio River, Mississippi River and, finally, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

Directly south of the preserve, the Headwaters Trail traverses the headwaters of both the Cuyahoga River and Mahoning River watersheds, giving it its name. In Mantua, the western portion of the trail crosses the Cuyahoga River, which drains all the way into Lake Erie. The eastern portion of the trail runs along Eagle Creek in Garrettsville. The center of the trail crosses the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico Continental Divide, making it and the surrounding land critical for water quality as conserving land in the headwaters of a watershed protects water quality downstream.

After Portage Park District purchased the property in 2021, it planted over 25 acres of trees there as part of its 30th-anniversary reforestation project.

“You have Eagle Creek and Silver Creek in there, so the goal was to try and increase the forested buffer along the stream, stabilize the soil and also just build off of what was existing for us to expand that so it would start to become more of what we call interior forest,” Portage Park District Natural Areas Manager Bob Lange said.

Portage Park District planted between 15,000 and 16,000 tree seedlings on 30 acres of land in 2021 to celebrate its 30th anniversary — 30 acres for 30 years. Oaks were predominantly chosen because they benefit wildlife and are easy to establish, hardy, readily available and long-lived. In total, over 30 different species of native trees were planted.

Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve received the bulk of the trees to protect the waterways running through it and create a habitat for forest-nesting songbird species like wood thrushes and scarlet tanagers. Trail Lake Park in Streetsboro received the rest, about 5 acres of tree seedlings, which were planted in a large former farm field that begins to slope down and drain into J. Arthur Herrick Fen Nature Preserve. Again, the site was chosen to create a buffer for critical wetlands.

Trail Lake Park

Incidentally, the story of Trail Lake Park’s acquisition is not unlike that of Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve.

A 130-acre segment of the 222-acre park was part of the estate of the late Bill Gressard, a longtime nature columnist for the Record-Courier and dedicated conservationist. Gressard originally dug the 30-acre lake in 1956 to function as a fish farm. Bass and bluegill were stocked, raised and line-caught on the farm to be sold to local restaurants.

After Portage Park District passed its first levy in 2014, Craycroft was contacted by a member of the Gressard family. At the time, the family had been looking into auctioning the property off and lots to build homes around the lake had already been sectioned off. However, the family knew their father would have wanted to preserve the land.

Today, Trail Lake Park is the product of not only the Gressard family’s former farmland, it also contains a 60-acre segment purchased from the Kriefhoff family, a 16-acre parcel purchased from the Brotje family and a portion of land from The Nature Conservancy.

Trail Lake Park features a 30-acre fishing lake, an accessible kayak launch, a 1.6-mile ADA-accessible trail and a diverse successional habitat of grasses, forbes, shrubs and trees, including a meadow restoration project that supports a host of pollinators.

When it opened during the height of the pandemic in November 2020, Trail Lake Park attracted more than 2,000 visitors on its opening weekend.

“It’s a pretty special piece of property, and we were able to open it up in November of 2020. So when you think about how many folks had not been outside, had not had something new to do, it was a real privilege to be able to open that space and welcome the thousands of people that came through that weekend to look at the park,” Portage Park District Education Outreach Manager Jennifer White said.

According to White, opportunities like Trail Lake Park, Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve and others acquired and managed by the park district would not have been possible without the tax levy dollars it has come to rely on to preserve Portage County.

Levy dollars

Although Portage Park District has purchased most of its land with grants, it still relies on a local, in-kind contribution to secure the grant funding. Levy money is leveraged to secure grant funding and offer purchase agreements to landowners like the Carlisles and Gressards.

“Since we got the levy passed we’ve brought in over $7 million dollars in grants and over a million in the value of land that’s been donated to us,” Craycroft said. “If you compare that to the dollars that we’ve brought in with the levy, for every dollar that the levy brought in, an extra 60 cents was brought in from outside the community. We’re stretching the levy dollars as far as we can.”

Since Portage Park District passed its first levy in 2014, it has opened four new parks, protected an additional 1,335 acres, improved existing parks and resurfaced trails and grown from two employees to 11 full-time and three part-time employees. It manages over 2,750 acres and 17 miles of hike and bike trails on 22 sites.

Preserving Portage County

stan's favorite view
The view from Stan Carlisle’s favorite spot, located on his 40 acres, overlooks his home and the dairy farm his father ran next door, what is now Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve. (Sara Welch photo)

Parked atop a hill on the 40 acres he kept in his pickup truck, next door to Eagle Creek Greenway Preserve, Carlisle points to the weathered dairy barn, Hill’s house and his childhood home across the street and all of the surrounding lands below, dubbing the view laid out in front of him his favorite.

“This is home,” Carlisle said. “There’s something about whenever you come home you just kind of relax. This is where I grew up. My kids are in northeast Ohio and they come back to the farm and really enjoy seeing the preserved land.”

The wooden Hillbrook Farm sign his father made in high school woodshop is still displayed proudly on Carlisle’s barn, the cabin his son used to camp in is still visible in the woods behind his house and a million other memories are woven into the soil beneath his feet. The only evidence the farm is under new management is the swaths of wildflowers and young trees that now cover its landscape where neat pastures and crop fields used to be.

As for Carlisle, he still rents out 11 acres of his land to a local farmer, and he dreams of cattle in his pastures again someday, maybe — just not dairy cattle.

“Cows were nice. I enjoyed them. I don’t miss milking them,” he said.

•••

Issue 31

• The Portage Park District’s one-mill levy on the Nov. 7 ballot will replace the current 10-year, half-mill levy that expires at the end of 2023. The existing levy was approved by the voters in 2014 and was the park district’s first and only levy.

• The existing half-mill levy provides 95% of the park district’s operating budget and is used to match state and federal grants received for land acquisition and development.

• The upcoming one-mill levy will generate $4.54 million per year to support park maintenance, improvements, staffing and the creation of new parks and trails. It will cost the owner of a $100,000 property $35 per year or $2.92 per month.

STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!

Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for coverage of the Portage Park District and mentioning the up coming levy. The important work Christine Craycroft and her staff do is critically important for open space preservation and water quality protection and is not always known to Portage County citizens.

LEAVE A REPLY

We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.