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Cuyahoga County’s Forest Past – and Why It Matters Today

A.B. Williams Memorial Woods at Cleveland Metroparks' North Chagrin Reservation [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]

Only a few spots exist today that provide an example of what Cuyahoga County may have looked like 200 years ago.

A.B. Williams Memorial Woods is one of them. Home to centuries-old beech and maple trees, it’s a National Natural Landmark and part of the Cleveland Metroparks’ North Chagrin Reservation.

On a recent morning, the trail into the forest is muddy and no one is around. It’s quiet, though birds and other wildlife are flitting and flying from tree to tree.

It’s the type of landscape James Arbuckle would have seen in 1806. He was one of the men Moses Cleaveland assigned to survey the land west of the Cuyahoga River.

This mile the land is too good to talk about – timber, beech, sugar tree, basswood, walnut, popular, and everything that is good, Arbuckle wrote in one of his land surveys from the time.

“I love that,” said Baldwin Wallace professor Dr. Kathryn Flinn. “He was one of the worst surveyors in terms of doing his job, but he had a lot of interesting comments.”

When Moses Cleaveland arrived at the Cuyahoga River in 1796, the region was about 94 percent forest.  He assigned a group of men, Arbuckle included, to plot out the land in the county and evaluate its value – what kinds of trees were there? How dominant were they? What kind of agriculture was the land best suited for?

Each man wrote details of his surroundings in land surveys. In addition to listing tree species and their prominence, entries include notes about what surveyors’ lives were like and what wildlife they encountered.

“Sometimes he [Arbuckle] was cranky,” said Flinn before reading a few lines from his book.

No water, no bread, went to bed without our supper. Started without our breakfast…the beach land was not fit to be inhabited by savages or wild beasts, I am dry and hungry both. – James Arbuckle

Flinn and a BW student spent years poring over journals including Arbuckle’s as part of a study on Cuyahoga County’s tree history compared to today’s.

One of Arbuckle's field journals, now at the Research Library at the Cleveland History Center [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]

The study was published last month in the Journal of Vegetation Science. Flinn will present her findings at public forums this fall in Rocky River and at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

“In 1800, we found that about half of the landscape was covered by forests dominated by beech, and about a third of the landscape was an oak forest,” explained Flinn.

Other species included maple, chestnut, and ash. The study also looked for any signs of permanent Native American settlements, but only found notes about Native American paths and one “Indian sugar camp”.

Flinn says over the next 200 years things changed – there was a decline in beech-dominated forests, and an increase in maple-dominated forests.

Dr. Kathryn Flinn [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]

“We found that species that are well adapted to disturbance were the ones who increased the most,” said Flinn. “Maples fall into that category.”

Common local disturbances included logging and farming.

Today, Cuyahoga County is just under 20 percent forest.

“With colonization and with urban expansion, much of that land was completely cleared and it was cleared for agricultural purposes, for settlement, for urbanization,” explained Cleveland Metroparks ecologist Dr. Constance Hausman.

Dr. Constance Hausman [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]

We meet at Parma’s Watershed Stewardship Center, across town from North Chagrin Reservation.  In front of a big forest of red maples on a windy day, Hausman explains that the maple trees are all about the same age – about 40 or 50 years old.

“There’s not a lot of diversity here,” said Hausman.  “Not a lot of different types of trees, not a lot of unique habitat.”

Cuyahoga County forests today tend to be more homogenous – dominated by the same set of species, like maple.  Prof. Flinn says this is common for areas that have gone through rapid urbanization and development.

And while it’s better to have some trees than no trees, Metroparks ecologist Hausman says the lack of variety can mean a lack in other things.

“The greater the variety and the species richness of an area, the greater amount of wildlife and habitat those communities can support by providing food resource, nest sites, and structure available for all wildlife,” said Hausman.

For Professor Flinn at BW, the data shows a dramatic change in a short period of time, a “Forest City” that’s lost its forests.

“This is a forest region, and I think it’s important that we think of ourselves with that identity,” said Flinn. “We live in a forested region, a region that was forested and would be forested if not for us.”

Flinn says planners can use her study for future restoration projects. The information shows what kinds of trees and plants might be more resilient and in what areas they can thrive.

“It’s so valuable because it’s a snapshot that happened the moment before everything changed,” said Flinn.

She says it also points out the need for forest restoration, especially beech and oak forests.

The Metroparks’ Dr. Hausman says this kind of information is also about learning where you come from – and where Cuyahoga County’s development started.

“It’s all about change – trying to understand who we are, and where we’re going is influenced directly by where we’ve been,” said Hausman. “Those old, historic data sets give us an opportunity to understand and respect and value the land in its original condition.”