By Julie Schuler
“Can we go on a trail?” Every time I take my son to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I’m bound to hear this question, and our trip to the Everett Covered Bridge was no different. Earlier this year, we visited the area to check out the gorgeous bridge and the habitat restoration taking place in the area.
With four distinct trails—totaling 28 miles—converging at the bridge, we had our pick. At two miles, the Furnace Run Loop seemed to fit the bill for the day. Rated as moderate to difficult, with 240 feet of elevation change, we only did a slice of the trail that afternoon, with plans to return with our hiking sticks (and water) for a complete experience. Mostly, I wanted to show my kids the trees.
Finding trees in the park is a lot like finding sand at the beach, but there’s something particularly special about the trees near Everett Covered Bridge. Specifically, these newly planted saplings are laying the groundwork for the future of the park as a thriving, protected habitat. They’re also a reflection of the importance of volunteers to the work the NPS does.
I learned all about these efforts when I had the chance to meet NPS Plant Ecologist Chris Davis for an insider’s tour of the area. There’s nothing like seeing the park from an expert’s eyes, and it gave me the chance to learn more about the “why” beyond the paths we take.
Surrounding the Furnace Run Loop are 22 acres that were once fields and farmland, dating back to about the 1930s. When the area became part of the national recreation area in the 1980s, trees began growing again—but these trees weren’t necessarily healthy for the area. Non-native black locust trees, weedy wild black cherry trees, and undergrowth riddled with wild mustard became common.
In 2013, Chris and the NPS began to combat these invasive plants with a plan: reforest the area with native trees that would help preserve and protect the water quality in Furnace Run stream and serve as critical habitat for songbirds, bugs, and wildlife.
“Reforesting helps catch runoff that would otherwise go into the stream. It’s important for water quality,” Chris explained. “In addition, it gives native migratory birds a place to hide from threats like the brown-headed cowbird, which is hammering songbird populations.”
The story of the cowbird was an interesting one. As Chris explained it, cowbirds lay their eggs in songbirds’ nests, then hang out nearby to make sure those birds take good care of the eggs. If they don’t, the cowbird attacks the nest, destroying the songbird’s eggs in the process. If the eggs are taken care of, the cowbird hatchlings will edge out the native songbird’s babies. “It’s a no-win
situation for songbirds. Since cowbirds only ‘hang out’ on the edge of forests, by returning large open fields to forests, we give these birds the chance to survive,” Chris said.
Since 2013, volunteers have planted 1,500 trees across about 10 acres in the Everett Covered Bridge area. Walk the Furnace Run Loop and you’ll spot these trees easily: white tubes surround three- to six-foot tall plantings, dotting the landscape as far as you can see. The trees include sycamores, swamp white oaks, box elders, and silver maples.
Planting so many trees takes not only financial resources but also human ones, and the Conservancy plays a role on both fronts, recruiting and managing volunteers as well as raising funds for the program. The NPS and Conservancy work together to get the job done, with Conservancy Director of Volunteer Services Jamie Walters organizing large corporate volunteer groups and NPS Ranger Josh Bates organizing youth groups. Chris logistically organizes the plantings and oversees the work. The trio’s efforts were recently honored with the national Achieving Relevance in Public Engagement and Resource Stewardship Award for the National Park Service.
In terms of logistics, the groundwork is as extensive as the fields themselves. Chris must first assure that an area is archaeologically sound for tree planting. Because of the American Indian history of the region, this involves considerable research. Then the fields must be properly cleared for digging, with weeds, underbrush, and more all removed by volunteer hands.
“There are a lot of volunteers that really love that work: the prep work. It’s so important to give the trees a clear base for growth,” Chris said.
After the trees are planted, Mother Nature isn’t always cooperative. “When the cicadas emerged in 2016, it hurt some of the smaller tree branches. Volunteers helped us with pruning and checking. Voles have also been an issue. But the trees are fighting.”
The goal for the area is 60 to 70 percent survival rate. The NPS plants trees in a way that leaves room for loss. The ultimate goal, Chris said, is 125 trees per acre for a healthy forest.
My daughter noticed the tubes protecting the trees the minute we hit the trail and was intrigued by what they meant. She’s my “thoughtful biologist,” always looking towards the future. When I explained to her that the tubes help shield the trees from deer, beavers, and other wildlife, she wanted to know more. When will the tubes be removed? How long will it be until it’s a forest again? How do the trees help keep the water clean?
Like her, I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s volunteer program is co-managed by the Conservancy for CVNP and the National Park Service. Together, we’re building a community of park stewards for over 6,000 volunteers each year. Learn more and find a volunteer opportunity >