The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s 10,000-acre preservation landmark: editorial

January 2, 2019

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s 10,000-acre preservation landmark: editorial

The Appalachian spiraea. Blue-eyed grass. Burying beetles. The American Bittern. Wild lupine. The bullhead-lily. Bog birches. Lake Erie water snake. These are but a few of the rare species the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has helped preserve in northern Ohio through its natural areas stewardship and acquisition program.

In 2018, the museum’s natural areas preservation land grew to more than 10,000 acres under protection -- itself a rare and remarkable achievement.

The museum’s natural areas program has been led since 1976 by botanist Jim Bissell, whose tireless efforts to chronicle everything from rare grasses along Cleveland railroad tracks to endangered flowers in remote fens have been a driving force in the expansion of protected areas.

The program focuses on locating and preserving rare examples of the area’s geologic and natural history, such as glacial fens and bogs, Lake Erie sand barrens and other natural shoreline, tamarack forests and sparse alvar grasslands, areas that support an unusual range of diverse plants, animals and insects. In fact, through the museum’s Conservation Outreach Program, museum staff are generally eager to visit and inventory species on other potential conservation land when landowners or conservation groups ask.

The museum now has 58 preserves in ten counties, including ten separate areas on Kelleys Island, where the Scheele Preserve of meadows, rare rock elms and scrub land was recently expanded. The Scheele Preserve is named for the late museum director William E. Scheele under whose stewardship the museum’s formal natural areas acquisition efforts began in 1956 with purchase of Geauga County’s Fern Lake Bog.

The acquisition of Fern Lake Bog was enabled -- as has been the case with most of the museum’s subsequent acquisitions -- by strategic partnerships with individual donors, public grantors and conservation groups, notably these days with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. Yet as early as 1922, two years after its formal founding, the museum found itself steward of important natural Kelleys Island sites dating to the region’s glaciation. 

The natural areas program tries to minimize human disruptions of protected areas, so most of the preserved land is not regularly open to the public, but it can be accessed by permit or guided visits, including regular museum tours. But some do have public trails -- notably, the Scheele Preserve, in summer months, and, year-round, the sprawling Mentor Marsh in Lake County, an important fish-breeding and bird migratory site, and the North Kingsville Sand Barrens in Ashtabula County. 

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History didn’t set out to become steward of 10,165 significant conservation acres in Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Erie, Geauga, Huron, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Summit and Trumbull counties. But now that it is, it hopes to keep expanding the areas already under protection to increase their viability and durability -- not just as homes to endangered and threatened species but also as important contributors to wider ecosystem and watershed protections. And none of this would have been possible without the generous donations of private citizens passionate about preserving our natural wonders. 

So crossing the 10,000-acre threshold may be just the start. But it is also a remarkable achievement to celebrate.

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