The Upper Grand River and vicinity is about as close to wilderness as you'll find in northeastern Ohio. Not only is the stream one of Ohio's most pristine waterways, but terrestrial habitats along the river corridor are diverse, largely intact, and full of biodiversity including many rare species.
This map depicts the jigsaw puzzle of protected lands along part of the Grand, with the centerpiece being the 1300-acre Morgan Swamp. Morgan is owned by TNC, and is a fantastically wild and swampy place that is a treasure trove of wetland diversity. The sinuous course of the Grand River is outlined in blue.
Land protection efforts began along the Grand in 1956, when the Ohio Division of Wildlife began acquisition for the Grand River Wildlife Area, which now totals nearly 7,500 acres. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History made its inaugural purchase in 1982 of an area now known as the Grand River Terraces. And, of course, TNC has added large and significant holdings to the total.
In 2009, the Ohio Chapter of TNC purchased a vital add-on to Morgan Swamp - 200 acres from City Mission, a Cleveland-based charity which owned a camp adjacent to the swamp. And now comes news that City Mission has donated the remaining 58 acres of the camp property to TNC, completing acquisition of critical streamside acreage in the Morgan Swamp region.
This donation is a charitable gift of the highest order, and helps to ensure that Ohioans far into the future will have wildlands along the Grand River. The positive ramifications of protecting land along the Grand are numerous and varied, and I want to share a few of the area's highlights below. Many thanks to Ian Adams for the use of a few of his stunning photos. Ian is one of the country's best photographers of natural history; check him out RIGHT HERE.
Photo: Ian Adams
Morgan Swamp features one of Ohio's best hemlock swamps. Such habitat is exceedingly rare this far south, and supports many species of rare plants and animals. Boreal breeding birds such as Hermit Thrush and Winter Wren occur here, along with over 100 other nesting bird species.
Scores of unusual plants occur in Morgan Swamp, including a half-dozen species of orchids. This is Crane-fly Orchid, Tipularia discolor. Its ghostly white spires of flowers push from the humus of the forest floor in mid-summer, when they are hard to see in the dimly lit understory. The flowers are noctodorous: they produce a fragrance only at night, which lures moth pollinators.
A soggy lowland is brightened by emerald Royal Ferns, Osmunda regalis. Ohio has lost over 90% of its pre-settlement wetlands, and conservation of our remaining bogs, fens, swamps, and marshes is vital. Biological diversity spikes enormously in such places, and their value is not just to the curious naturalist. Wetlands reduce downstream flooding, improve aquifers, provide breeding habitat for long-distance migrant Neoptropical birds, and harbor an incredible array of flora.
Several species of salamanders breed in Morgan Swamp's wetlands, including Spotted Salamanders. The Spotted Salamander is one of a group known as "mole salamanders", as they spend nearly all of their lives subterraneously, tunneling through the soil. When triggered by the first warm rainy nights of spring, Spotted Salamanders and others of their ilk burst from the ground and engage in a fantastic overland migration to age-old woodland pools where they court, mate, and lay eggs.
High on the flashy list of rare plants is the gaudy Turk's-cap Lily, Lilium superbum. It's worth a mid-summer trip to Ashtabula County and Morgan Swamp just to see this jaw-dropper. A vigorous Turk's-cap can tower well over your head and the plant's pendant pedicels might support a dozen of the fawn-speckled orange blooms.
Central to all of the land protection efforts in this region is the Grand River. In recognition of the stream's outstanding attributes, it has been designated a State and National Wild and Scenic River. Permanently protecting riparian lands such as the newly donated City Mission property helps to protect water quality of streams. And ensuring the waters of the Grand River stay clean and healthy has consequences far beyond Ashtabula County and Ohio. The Grand dumps its waters into Lake Erie, which is a world class perch and walleye fishery, and fishing alone generates tens of millions of dollars annually, and fish depend upon clean water.
A number of highly sensitive organisms live within the waters of the Grand River, and this plant is certainly one of the oddest. It is Riverweed, Podostemum ceratophyllum, and it is a true flowering vascular plant. By way of adhesive discs, the Riverweed attaches itself to rocks in swiftly flowing riffles, and grows under the water. The Grand supports Ohio's only known population of Riverweed. This species has disappeared in many places due to water quality degradation.
A staggering 74 species of fish have been found in the Grand River, including the little charmer above. It's a Sand Darter, and these tiny bottom-dwelling fish are utterly dependent upon clean sandy stream bottoms. If excessive siltation enters the stream and smothers the sand with a layer of mud, it's curtains for the Sand Darter, and it has disappeared in many parts of its range.
Without doubt, the Grand River and its corridor ranks near the top of Ohio's natural treasures. Major thanks are due the City Mission for helping to ensure that this resource is protected well into the future.