History, ecology, and restoration in Glen Helen


By Nick Boutis



Glen Helen is the region’s largest and most-visited private nature preserve, yet just a fraction of our 100,000 annual visitors spend time along our largest waterway, the Little Miami River.

More than two miles of the Little Miami flow through Glen Helen, all the way from the border of John Bryan State Park to the Greene County boat launch at Jacoby Road.

Here, where there are few visitors and fewer trails, Glen Helen shelters ancient trees, wetlands, the ruins of an ancient earthwork, and habitat for wildlife. With support from visitors, donors, and volunteers, we’re working diligently to restore the land along the river.

This is not the wilderness that Tecumseh would have found as he walked past these same trees 200 years ago. The big predators are gone from the area. Passenger pigeons are extinct. Lots of the trees are gone too. But, within what is now the Dayton-Springfield metro area, Glen Helen along the Little Miami is as wild as you get.

Here, there is a sycamore tree nearly eight feet in diameter. Here, river otter, fox, and beaver make their home. Also on the river, wood ducks, geese, and mallards can be seen at various times of year. Kingfisher too. Barred owls hoot under cover of darkness.

In recognition of its scenic and ecological value, the Little Miami has been designated a State and National Scenic River. From Glen Helen, only proper training and time would prevent an ambitious person from canoeing to New Orleans.

A snapshot of the recent past

As Ohio was developed during the past century and a half, lands that were flat enough for agriculture were farmed, including in Glen Helen. A semicircular earthwork, featured in the landmark 1848 Smithsonian publication, “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley,” was flattened to make room for agriculture. Wetlands along the river were drained and diked to create farmable fields. Trees were cut, crops planted, cattle grazed.

Even after Hugh Taylor Birch gifted Glen Helen to Antioch College in 1929, farming continued in the preserve. This practice continued until the 1970s, when we established meadows and prairies on the site of former farm fields.

In Tecumseh’s time, abandoned agricultural land would follow a sequence of succession, with farm fields giving way to meadow, then to thicket, then to forest, until what was once a field would become an ecologically diverse and healthy forest.

Today, however, invasive species change that trajectory. Bush honeysuckle — originally from Asia — is the dominant understory tree. Garlic mustard grows abundantly. Multifloral rose scrapes you as you walk past it. Worse, native trees and wildflowers are unable to return so long as their habitat is filled with these invaders. It can be daunting and depressing.

Restoration

During the past 10 years, we’ve ramped up our efforts to protect the river by stewarding the land that borders it. With the support of donors, as well as grants from the Adam Schantz Fund, the Clean Ohio Fund, and the Upper River Fund of the Dayton Foundation, we’ve been working to drive back the invasive species and restore the land along the river.

Our priority is the land within 200 feet of the river. Glen Helen staff, working alongside many volunteers, cut thousands and thousands and thousands of honeysuckle shrubs. Almost immediately, our efforts began to pay off. Where once you saw nothing but honeysuckle, now native wildflowers bloom.

At Camp Greene, a Glen Helen property formerly owned by the Girl Scouts, we took our efforts a step further. After removing honeysuckle, we planted dozens of native trees and fenced the area to protect the young trees from deer. Visit today, and you’ll find a carpet of wildflowers, along with Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles and other migratory birds nesting in the trees.

It’s a potent reminder that natural areas are able to thrive, but sometimes just need a bit of help from us first. Glen Helen regularly schedules volunteer days where folks with a few hours to spare can help the land and the river it feeds. To find out more, visit www.glenhelen.org.

With your support, we can make a difference.

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By Nick Boutis

Nick Boutis is executive director of Glen Helen Ecology Institute. Contact him at nboutis@glenhelen.org

Nick Boutis is executive director of Glen Helen Ecology Institute. Contact him at nboutis@glenhelen.org

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