AKRON, Ohio (AP) — As Summit Metro Parks biologist Mike Johnson walked along the former Valley View Golf Course property where a stream is being added, he suddenly looked down, plucked up a dirt-covered golf ball and held it in the air.

"I found an artifact!" Johnson said, laughing.

Park staff and contractors working on the ambitious project to turn the golf course into parkland have found thousands of golf balls, which they affectionately refer to as "turtle eggs."

The massive golf ball collection — which park leaders aren't yet sure what they'll do with — is among the interesting discoveries so far in the effort to return the golf course to its original, natural state.

The desire for the Valley View property to be part of Summit County's park system dates back nearly 100 years.

A 1925 master plan for the county's parks mentions this area along the Cuyahoga River, saying, "its great and impressive beauty are certainly beyond question; and to save that scenery for all time for the benefit and enjoyment of the people would be an accomplishment justifying unusual effort and worthy of great praise."

"It always had been identified," Moskos said. "It just took 100 years to secure the land."

Metro Parks bought the property, which had been a golf course for more than 50 years, for $4 million in October 2016. The 200-acre property connects three parks — Cascade Valley, Gorge and Sand Run — and creates the district's second-largest contiguous area, at just under 1,700 acres.

After park officials secured the property, they began the complex task of undoing what had been done over 50 years to keep the land lush, green and free of water.

The work started with killing the turf, which wasn't native to the area. Davey Golf, a division of Kent-based Davey Tree, put on applications in the fall, spring and summer — turning the green into brown.

Next came the removal of trees not native to the United States, including about 300 Norway spruce.

"It looked like the war on Christmas," Moskos said of the removal of the pine trees, which were turned into mulch.

After this, it was time to plant. About 600 volunteers planted more than 100,000 oak, walnut, sycamore and cherry nuts last October, with the goal of turning about half of the park into woodlands.

This tactic had the dual benefit of involving the public and saving money, with the cost of planting trees originally pegged at about $900,000. It went so well that Johnson said the parks will always use this technique for planting trees. Small trees, each about a foot tall, already are visible among the prairie-like collection of wildflowers and grasses that now line the property.

Work is underway to restore wetlands and streams that were taken out to make room for the golf course, with tiles and pipes used to drain water away.

Park officials were excited when a dumpster dive produced a map and photographs showing where the pipes were installed, a discovery that saved time and helped focus their efforts.

"We're starting to form a stream channel," Johnson said on the recent tour, pointing to an area that had been excavated, with piles of rocks in several areas. "When this is done, no one will know we did this."

Corine Peugh, a project manager for Davey Tree, which is helping oversee the restoration effort, and her crew were working on installing a culvert on the property on a recent afternoon. "It's a great project," she said. "Once it's all said and done, it will be a really nice, natural area."

The next step will involve restoring the Cuyahoga River, including removing debris heaped up along the banks to keep the water off the golf course. A well-known bridge over the river will be removed so the river can be widened, with a new bridge built.

Park officials also plan to add amenities to the property for the public's enjoyment.

The former clubhouse, built in an 1851 dairy barn, will be converted into an education and visitors center. The three-story structure, which had been sectioned off for the clubhouse, will be opened up to expose the wood beams in the top of the barn and create a wide, open space.

Park officials want the center to be attractive to the refugees from the nearby North Hill and plan to build a stage they can use for cultural dances and have space for them to sell their wares. Outdoor spaces also will be available adjacent to the center.

The plans also include an event center and boathouse, intended to store kayaks and canoes. Metro Parks is coordinating with Cuyahoga Valley National Park and a local livery about uses for the river.

"The boathouse will allow people to rent a canoe, store it on site, get on a train and ride the train back," Moskos said, referring to the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. "It's mind-blowing to me."

Trails will be added throughout the park to connect with existing trails.

When the barn is renovated, possibly as early as next year, access will be allowed to the site, although work will still be in progress.

The entire project, which is being broken into phases and has mostly been funded by grants, may take as long as 25 years, Moskos said.

The park district has sought input from the public for the project and plans to seek more as the effort continues. Johnson said there may be other opportunities for the public to help like with the tree planting.

As the project advances, many from the Akron area are watching with anticipation and dreaming about the possibilities.

Kyle Kutuchief, program director for the Knight Foundation, one of the agencies that has helped to fund the project, has recently caught glimpses of the park while jogging on the towpath and kayaking on the river. He can imagine dropping a kayak into the river at the park and rowing to Szalay's Farm or Peninsula and taking the towpath to the Gorge or from Cuyahoga Falls to downtown Akron.

"The connectivity — it's going to be really cool," he said. "Everybody wins."

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Information from: Akron Beacon Journal, http://www.ohio.com