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Willoughby land preservation investment will have a Lake Erie payoff

Image of the Chagrin River bank with the river on the right and trees and green space to the left.
Western Reserve Land Conservancy
The Chagrin River in Willoughby, Ohio. Willoughby and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy partnered to acquire 105 acres of greenspace along the river to protect natural habitat, including floodplains and wetlands, necessary for a variety of native species in the area.

The city of Willoughby and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy have partnered to preserve 105-acres of natural habitat in the Chagrin River watershed.

The Office of Coastal Management at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources directed more than $1.7 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to support the acquisition along the Chagrin River that the conservancy's Conservation Project Manager Robin Christensen said are essential for surrounding wildlife.

Trees, branches and standing water located in the site acquired by the city of Willoughby and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.
Western Reserve Land Conservancy
The 105-acre site includes wetlands and a floodplain that help filter pollutants and is helps protect homes, buildings and other infrastructure from flooding during heavy rain storms.

“It's great habitat for salamanders and other species,” she said, “but also really filters out pollutants that may be picking up from the subdivisions or roads and also any sediment and prevents that from going into the river and decreasing the quality of the habitat for fish and other aquatic insects.”

The property was formerly owned by Andrews Osborne Academy and features 37 acres of upland forest, 18 acres of floodplain forest, and 36 acres of old fields and a former tree nursery habitat, according to the news release. It also contains about 13 acres and 5,000 linear feet of the Chagrin River, less than four miles from the rivers connection to Lake Erie.

The area is essential habitat to a variety of species, Christensen said, including one of the last remaining populations of native brook trout in the state and as many as 350 migratory bird species

“It is critical habitat,” she said. “We have hundreds of species of birds that have been documented by volunteers that actually use the property, and in any given day visiting the property, you can see blue herons and a bald eagle and just an amazing diversity of bird species that are there.”

The surrounding area is being developed, Christensen said, including the construction of a housing development nearby.

The property features wetlands and a floodplain that help reduce risk of algal blooms in Lake Erie. But the floodplain also helps protect surrounding homes and buildings during heavy rain events, Christensen said.

A great blue heron standing in the Chagrin River on Wednesday, September 14, 2022.
Western Reserve Land Conservancy
A great blue heron standing in the Chagrin River on Wednesday, September 14, 2022.

“That's important land that can absorb some of that floodwater so it doesn't flood out homes or take out bridges and other infrastructure,” she said. “Part of the restoration that's going to be for the property is capturing storm water from surrounding developments, the new development that's going in and then also the roads.”

The first phase of the project, with an overall estimated price tag of $5.2 million, is funded through the H2Ohio program, a comprehensive statewide initiative to address water quality issues in Ohio. The nonprofit Chagrin River Watershed Partners will be leading efforts to stabilize streambanks, remove and treat invasive plants and protect species on the site, according to the release.

The city of Willoughby will be working with a contractor on the upcoming restoration phase of the project that includes enhancing and adding wetlands to the property, restoring the tree nursery and building 2.5 miles of public walking and biking trails.

“In the next one to two years that will start to be implemented in phases of a little bit of earthworks, although not much, [and] a lot of planting of native vegetation,” Christensen said. “After that, in the next probably two to five years, actual walking paths and bridges and boardwalks.”

Corrected: October 6, 2023 at 7:12 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.