Balancing Conservation And Recreation: Portage Park District Begins Designing A New Park

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Northeast Ohio is reverting to nature. County park systems are in the process of turning golf courses in Akron, Lyndhurst, and Aurora into metro parks. This year the Portage Park District completed a purchase of 215 acres of industrial land in Kent and turning that into a park. But those are no longer just about grass and picnic tables.

Just across the street from a new housing development and some farmland likely to become a development sits the new Portage Parks property.  There is flatland with a dirt road, a grove of pine trees, then a steep hillside to some woods.

Portage Parks Director Christine Craycroft climbs over an embankment and points to the base of a tree. “Huh, that could be a little fox hole right there,” Craycroft said pointing to the base of a tree. “Isn’t that a nice view?”

Portage Park District Executive Director Christine Craycroft shows a wooded area scarred by mining but suitable for a mountain bike trail. 

Don’t expect a massive playground to be built here. The nearly two million dollars to buy this land came from the Ohio EPA and other organizations interested in protecting it from development. 

About 55 acres of bog land lies within the new park property.  (Portage Park District)

There are two environmentally sensitive areas: Plum Creek, a tributary to the Cuyahoga River that flows along the western border of the park, and on the eastern edge sits the 40 acre state-owned Kent Bog. Another 55 acres of that bog is part of this new park.  

“It’s the bog that really draws me,” said landscape architect Charles Frederick who has been hired to draw out a plan for the park.

“There’s something about the vegetation that’s there. Because this is a boreal environment and it should not be here.”

The Kent Bog with a floating boardwalk, birch tree, and the unusual deciduous conifer tamarack trees in the distance. [MarkUrycki / ideastream]

The bog is a rare eco-system, a remnant from a glacier 12 thousand years ago that left a kettle pond which filled with sphagnum moss and cold, acidic water. It also left behind cranberries, blueberries, and some odd species like tamarack trees that are normally found only much farther north. 

“There’s something special about having them there,” said Frederick. “It’s a deciduous evergreen. The change of the color of the needles I think is pretty fantastic. If you really want to see something bigger like this, you got to go to Canada. And it’s right here. It is in Northeast Ohio and Portage County.”   

In order to get visitors to the bog, the park will likely have to build a boardwalk that floats on top the spongy peat moss.  

Where once park officials thought about swing sets and benches, today it’s all kinds of trails. But they try to balance recreation and preservation.

“Cleveland Metroparks are doing a lot of activity in their parks. Summit seems to be more about conservation. And Portage Parks I think want to continue that but they are willing to experiment,” said Frederick.

Landscape architect Charles Frederick will walk the property taking thousands of photographs to study its potential layout. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream] 

Frederick’s ideas aren’t on the drawing board yet, but park staff and volunteers have already been working the land. On the banks of Plum Creek, Portage Parks Director Christine Craycroft points out where they’ve been killing invasive species of grasses and planting native trees.

“There’s swamp white oak, dogwood. We’ve got sycamore.  We’ve got willow…” said Craycroft.

“One nice benefit of trees in a riparian corridor is they shade the stream,” said Craycroft. “And so that’s going to affect the temperature of the water and the overall water quality and the kind of species that can live in that stream.”   

Some areas of this new property are a lot less fragile. Walking along what looks like an old jeep trail, Craycroft comes face to face with a rusty oil well and tank surrounded by a chain link fence.

“That’s part of what we inherit and have to deal with when we acquire a property,” said Craycroft. “The royalties at least from this are going to be transferred to the new owner. So we will get a little bit of income, but we won’t be drilling any new wells out here. And as soon as these peter out we’re going to make sure they get plugged and closed properly.”  

The park district will need to contend with an existing oil well until it runs out. [Stephen Morgan / ideastream]

This area was once a sand and gravel mining operation. In the woods the land is full of deep trenches and mounds left from that operation.  Park officials figure they will turn that lemon into lemonade. 

“Here we are in this crazy terrain,” Craycroft said, gesturing at the mounds. “It seems like this would be a perfect place for mountain bike trails. Because you want to go up and down and rolling around the landscape with your mountain bike.”

An example of an existing bike & hike trail through Towner's Woods Park. [Mark Urycki / ideastream]

Park planners look for ways to immerse visitors in nature and will carefully read study the landscape for every possibility.   

“With this hillside people want to do sledding in the wintertime so I thought this might be a nice pace to get started on that,” said Craycroft. “It’d be a good cross-country running route too, wouldn’t it for the runners? Cross-country skiing – that’s another possibility in the winter time. So yeah it’s going to be a beautiful park all year ‘round.”

Park officials are keen to protect the water in Plum Creek, a tributary of the Cuyahoga River. [Stephen Morgan / ideastream]

Once the designers come up with a blueprint, they’ll hold a public charrette and invite citizens to weigh in. The whole process is expected to take 2 to 3 years before this new park is open to visitors.


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