Metroparks celebrates county's pristine, 'scenic' rivers
June 11--HARPERSFIELD TOWNSHIP -- The natural, pristine oeuvre of Harpersfield Covered Bridge Metropark was the "picturesque" backdrop for a Sunday afternoon celebration 50 years in the making.
The Ashtabula County Metroparks on Sunday invited county and regional leaders, partners and all nature lovers to commemorate Ohio's Scenic Rivers Act, established in 1968 to help the state Department of Natural Resources protect Ohio's "high quality" stream systems. It was the first program of its kind in the country.
Since its inception, 14 Ohio rivers spanning 800 miles have been dubbed "scenic." Three of those are in Ashtabula County: the Ashtabula and Grand rivers and Conneaut Creek -- the latter two of which are also designated as more natural, "wild" rivers. Pymatuning Creek is expected to be named the county's fourth scenic river this year.
"This is the fabric of Ashtabula County," metroparks Executive Director Larry Frimerman told the Star Beacon Sunday. "Calling it anything less than that is probably selling it short."
He said the scenic parks are fuel for the county's more than $400 million tourism "engine," and local officials have been "very wise stewards" of these resources through zoning and comprehensive planning measures.
Through the Scenic Rivers Program, ODNR and private and public sector partners coordinate conservation efforts and environmental monitoring, Matthew Smith, ODNR's assistant regional scenic river manager, is quoted in a release from the metroparks.
"Each scenic river has an advisory council which provide vital grassroots advice and counsel to ODNR to help maintain these high quality river/stream systems so that future generations can enjoy their natural beauty, excellent water quality, biodiversity and recreational values," Smith said.
At Sunday's bash, several of those scenic river partners presented displays on waste runoff and pollution threats to the waters through poster boards and kids' activities. Live macroinvertebrates -- the rivers' common denizens -- and even parasitic lampreys, with their disc-shaped mouths of spiraling fangs that can suck fish dry, swam in display tanks.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detailed plans for a new, $600,000 addition to the more than 100-year-old Harpersfield Covered Bridge Dam -- set for a more than $5.5 million replacement next year -- which would help keep the dangerous lamprey from exacting a serious ecological toll on the rivers and Lake Erie.
Lamprey are already responsible for wiping out populations of lake trout in Lake Michigan, said Gabriel Schmidbauer, the corps' project manager at the Harpersfield dam. The hollow-core Harpersfield Dam, now compromised by holes, makes the Grand River vulnerable, meaning the dam's proposed lamprey barrier is an important tool.
He said a female lamprey will lay, on average, about 50,000 eggs.
"There's a potentiality for not only removing native species, but giving an opportunity for more lamprey, as well as more invasive fish (to move in)," Schmidbauer said -- such as the alewife fish, which tends to opportunistically thrive after trout exterminations. "We really want to prevent that from happening."
The project has received sponsorship from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, which provided funding and the scientific method behind the barrier, and Frimerman himself, who's coordinated real estate matters, Schmidbauer said.
"If we weren't rebuilding the dam; building a new lamprey barrier, the current dam could potentially fail," he said. "It would open up a huge opportunity for the lamprey to get right in."
Bob Gable, ODNR's scenic river program manager, told those gathered Sunday though Ashtabula County makes up only about a quarter of the northeast Ohio region, it boasts nearly a third of the program's protected streams.
"These streams are wonderful," Gable said. "They are the best of the best. You should be very proud to have them in your region."
County Commissioner J.P. Ducro IV said they make Ashtabula County "a focal point for people who really like the outdoors and nature, and appreciate the beauty of a natural setting."
Though elected officials can advocate for support for the region's natural waterways, it takes a community to put their tax dollars behind it, he said, referencing the metroparks' five-year, half-mill levy, which voters approved in 2014, cementing more than $850,000 in dedicated parks funding.
"Now, I think they're seeing the fruits of that investment," Ducro said. "(The metroparks) would never have been able to get to the point where they could be open to the public and enjoyed. ... You have to have the support of the public."
State Rep. John Patterson, a member of the Ohio Legislature's Trails Caucus, said he and other legislators are looking forward to Pymatuning Creek's scenic designation as "15 in 50" -- 15 scenic river designations in 50 years.
"It is absolutely critical that we balance the need for economic progress with environmental preservation," he told the Star Beacon Sunday.
"For us to be here 50 years later, celebrating the first 50 years -- it's incumbent on us to ensure this good work continues ... for the utter enjoyment of all of us who embrace the outdoors."