Sunday, September 7, 2008

US 20 In Ohio: Geneva Swamp

Area near Rt 20 and Geneva Swamp (ignore shadow on satellite image)

The Cleveland Plain Dealer did a feature story today about a swampy area just north of US Route 20 in Geneva, Ohio (Ashtabula County), which is now part of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Why all the attention? Because the swamp is very representative of the way the city of Cleveland (Cuyahoga County) looked when Moses Cleaveland first settled in the area, long before US Route 20 (Euclid Avenue) was born. The geology of the area surrounding US Route 20 in the areas east of Cleveland in Lake County and Ashtabula County areas is very interesting. Much of US 20 runs along an old Lake Erie beach ridge (called the Lake Warren Ridge, after the larger, ancient Lake Warren that originally covered the area) that was formed as the glaciers retreated thousands of years ago. I live about ½ mile south of US Route 20 in Lake County, Ohio, and I can confirm that just looking at my own soil that this area had been a beach long ago.

In swampy Geneva land, museum sees Cleveland's history

Posted by Michael Scott September 07, 2008 02:50AM
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Jim Bissell has this fantastical space-time machine. Really.

Here's how it works: You drive 50 miles east of Cleveland to Geneva, go about a half-mile past the train tracks north of town, turn left into a 400-acre bog and find yourself right back in Cleveland -- more than 200 years ago.

"This is time travel -- it really is," gushed Bissell, head of botany and natural areas for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which is gradually adding the swamp to its existing "collection" of thousands of acres across northern Ohio -- from Lorain through Ashtabula counties. "If you want to see what the mouth of the Cuyahoga looked like, come to Geneva swamp and look around.

"This is downtown Cleveland before the buildings."

Like the land discovered by Moses Cleaveland, this marshy area along Lake Erie was cut tens of thousands of years ago by glaciers that left behind sandy ridges and certain types of soil and plant life.

"The sand ridges are where they built roads -- like St. Clair or Route [U.S.] 20 or any number of others," Bissell said. "Did you know there were still frog ponds in downtown Cleveland in the 1930s and wetlands everywhere before they were drained?

"Well, they were there then, and it's kind of neat to see it all out here now -- just in a different place."

But the Geneva wetland is also home to a "globally rare beetle," Bissell said, and could be the "mother lode of interesting species."

For those reasons and more, Bissell believes the several-hundred-acre Geneva swamp is so valuable that he has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last year to bid on portions of it for the museum. The first outright sale of a parcel is expected to close soon, museum officials said, and the others are in negotiations.

It's the same pattern he has followed for dozens of swamps, bogs and other wetlands in more than a half-dozen other northern Ohio counties over the last three decades.

Bissell, 61, became curator of botany at the museum in 1972 and began an aggressive -- but painstakingly patient -- effort to identify key areas in Ohio and Pennsylvania that he and others believed were vital wetlands worth preserving.

The museum's Natural Areas Program now has nearly three dozen nature preserves covering some 4,500 acres. About 1,500 more acres is pledged to the museum by property owners who still have title to their parcels.

"We'll be at 6,000 acres sooner than later if you add it all up," Bissell said.

It is believed to be the only municipal museum conservation effort of such scope in the country, experts have said. In all, the collection-outside-the-museum contains some 200 either rare or state-protected species: 110 plants and 90 fauna -- animals, bugs or other nonplant life.

The Geneva marshland, roughly 400 acres in all, is about three miles south of the Geneva State Park Lodge.

Bissell is negotiating with individual owners and paying for the parcels as he goes, relying on a $426,000 grant from the Kent Smith Charitable Foundation, an amount that must be matched by money raised from museum donors, he said.

Bissell and a handful of others -- both museum staff and volunteers with Northeast Ohio Naturalists, or NEON -- walked the Geneva swamplands one recent morning, cataloging plants, bugs and landforms.

Their constant banter and debate were strangely in harmony with chirping birds, humming cicadas and an intermittent squish-squish underfoot -- all punctuated by a train whistle on the hour.

Bissell said the diversity of an ecosystem, especially wetlands like this Geneva swamp, should be important to the average person for two reasons.

"Most of our pharmaceuticals come from plants, and all around us there is an arsenal of chemicals in these plants and some animals," he said. "Who really knows what the next one might be that helps humans."

The second reason?

"Because no one knows if you take out one species if it will be the one that leads to the unraveling of that ecosystem," said Stanley Stine, a part-time naturalist for the museum and the city of Twinsburg.

For that reason, the museum is involved "in not only acquiring land but in stewardship of the property afterward," Bissell said.

That's also part of the reason he keeps doing "any survey for free for anyone who asks for one." It's a way to find more biodiversity in the region but also a way to make more contacts for future property acquisitions.

"If Jim wasn't saving wetlands in Ohio and Pennsylvania, there wouldn't be wetlands being saved," said John Katko of Friends of Wetlands, another Bissell colleague and volunteer.

"People who own these types of lands know they look beautiful and maybe they like to walk it, but they don't really know everything that it contains," Stine said. "That's where we come in."

Museum preserves Geneva swamp

Jim Bissell will also be co-hosting a “Moss Hunt” at the Geneva Swamp for the Cleveland Natural History Museum on October 11, 2008. It is limited to 20 people, and more information can be found here.

The US Route 20 Blog homepage can be found here.

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