Private Land Donation Expands Fort Hill

Bruns Beechflats Swamp

Acres: 60.0      Project Total:  $253,500
Balance to Raise:  $0

 

Fort Hill’s Ancient Forest. Fort Hill boasts a stunning natural area 1600 acres in size, sheltering one of the largest and oldest contiguous forests in all of Ohio. Some of the woodlands may actually be considered authentic old growth  – forests that have not been disturbed since the early days of European settlement. It is estimated that Fort Hill protects over 800 vascular species of plants within its boundaries, an outstanding representation of the rich temperate deciduous forest that once covered the heartland forests of Eastern United States. Roughly 400 of the 1600 acres making up the larger preserve region were acquired though the efforts of the Arc of Appalachia. The land within traditional park boundaries of Fort Hill are owned by the Ohio History Connection, and managed by the Arc on their behalf.

Beechflats Swamp. Baker Fork winds through the heart of Fort Hill as it progresses toward its confluence with Ohio Brush Creek further downstream. Along its course through the park it passes through a breathtakingly beautiful karst landscape of vertical cliff walls, giant boulders, grottos, seeps, and stone arches. The character of Baker Fork upstream of the park, however, including the Brunses’ property, is starkly different. Here, immediately north of the park, once stood the vast Beechflats Swamp. In this region, Baker Fork once braided its way through a seasonally flooded landscape, spreading itself over multiple channels in a wide poorly drained floodplain. The two-square mile swamp was once characterized by water-tolerant pin oaks, shellbark hickories, beech trees and swamp white oaks. The swamp teamed with wildlife of all kinds including otters, bobcats, mink, raccoon, beaver, and muskrat. In the summer it sheltered signature wetland birds, including prothonotary and parula warblers, red-headed woodpeckers, wood ducks, and herons. In the spring the chorus of toads and frogs was deafening. To the Native American Indians, Beechflats was not only beautiful, it was nourishing and sustaining. Regretfully, we only know of one half acre of Beechflats Swamp that remains in its original primeval grandeur (see the Arc’s Redstone Farm Conservation Easement). The swamp – nearly in its entirety – was long ago logged and then drained for agriculture.

The Brunses’ Quest to Purchase and Protect. When Bill and Kathleen Bruns of Columbus found the sixty-acre tract for sale in 2008 lying immediately north of Fort Hill on the banks of Baker’s Fork, they were immediately enamored. This land meant they were one step closer to achieving their dream of living closer to the land. They were attracted to the property’s beautiful trees and its thick and vibrant growth of shrubs, and even more attracted to the thought of buying land so close to the Highlands Nature Sanctuary and Fort Hill. Today the couple confess, with considerable humor, that they started this endeavor as “green” as the forest they were determined to purchase. Soon after its acquisition, Bill and Kathleen hired a consulting forester to advise them on proper forest management. They were excited about their property, and they wanted to make sure to “do things right.” However, when the forester toured the property, instead of just focusing on the trees, he kept turning his attention to the masses of non-native shrubs that had colonized the understory. With his help, Bill and Kathleen began to learn the individual species that “made up the green,” and processed the new reality that much of their forest ‘s shrub layer was composed of non-native plants. The forester encouraged the couple to work on invasive plant removal, explaining that their forest, like most forests in Ohio, came with a history.

Mission Accepted. In the case of the Brunses’ property, the recovering successional forest and the older walnuts on the creek corridor had undergone a heavy timber harvest just before the property was sold. Furthermore, years earlier, the forest had been completely cleared for agriculture. Years of pasturing and crop fields had diminished the organic matter and nutrients in the soil. Now, under the canopy of young box elders, sycamores, and locusts the mineralized soils had been rapidly colonized by large numbers of invasive multiflora rose, autumn olive, and bush honeysuckle. Recognizing the immensity of the task at hand, Bill and Kathleen poured themselves into the task of removing the intruders, all with their own hard labor. Over the last 12 years, they have conservatively removed over 10,000 non-native plants from the forest, which equates to over 100 tons of plant material. Although perfection is not a word used in the field of land restoration, all of their labors have made an immense difference in the recovery of the native plant understory on the property. In the sunlit openings they created, pawpaws, spicebush, and arrowwood viburnum rushed in, making it harder for the non-native shrubs to recolonize. The Brunses’ perseverance and intense labor have transformed this piece of land, and the two of them are, in our eyes, heroes of the land restoration movement.

A Decision to Permanently Secure the Forest’s Future. The Brunses figured out pretty quickly that this property, as much as they loved it, was not calling to their hearts as a future homesite. And, as time progressed, they wondered if it might make sense to apply their sharpened restoration skills to a place closer to their Columbus home and thus spend a lot less time in the car. In the fall of 2020, Bill and Kathleen Bruns asked the Arc if we would like to add their property to the Arc’s Fort Hill holdings. Our response was an enthusiastic yes, and the transfer was accomplished. Bill and Kathleen are now volunteering their time to the removal of invasive plants at a small but beautiful nature preserve in Jefferson Township of Franklin County called the Boehnke Nature Preserve. They report that the 23-acre preserve has plenty of bush honeysuckle to keep them gainfully occupied. The couple also continue to be a regular presence at our Ridgeview Farm Volunteer Restoration Work Days at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary, just a few miles north of their donated woodlands.

Each time one of our staff members drives from the Sanctuary to Fort Hill on OH-753 and we pass the site of the donated Bruns Beechflat Swamp we give a nod of  tribute to Kathleen and Bill. We give a second encouraging nod of recognition to the shellbark trees that we can see growing vigorously at the edge of the forest. The spirit of Beechflats Swamp is stirring, and it wants to come back to life! Bill and Kathleen’s hard work was an earnest invitation for it to do so. Think what Ohio could look like if more people took up the torch of invasive removal – adopting a few acres of protected land to land to love and restore. There are many orphan forests in parks and preserves across Ohio needing caretakers just like Bill and Kathleen. Without them, the native forest community that has grown on those sites for the last 40 million year will fail. The earth has freely given sustenance to our species the gift of life since our origins. Now she is in need and it is up to choose whether or not we  provide the gift of sustenance back. May the Brunses’ story inspire you!

Bill and Kathleen Bruns in front of Shellbark Hickory tree

Whispers of the Swamp. The rarest trees in Ohio are ones that are adapted to poorly drained floodplains and wetlands, particularly Swamp White Oak and Shellbark Hickory. Ohio has lost 90% or more of its native wetlands, and the habitat that once grew these trees now grow soybeans and corn. Today Swamp White Oaks are uncommon to rare, and Shellbark Hickories even more so. Thus, imagine how excited all of us were to discover a beautiful grove of young shellbark hickories towering over their heads on the Bruns Beechflats Swamp property. Shown above are Bill and Kathleen Bruns.

Bill and Kathleen Bruns in front of Shellbark Hickory tree

Queen of the Swamp. In the dark hydric soils left behind by the now vanished Beechflats Swamp, the stunning Purple Fringeless Orchis make frequent but unpredictable appearances along the riparian corridor of Baker Fork. She always takes our breath away.

Bill and Kathleen Bruns in front of Shellbark Hickory tree

King of the Swamp –  Shellbark Hickory, also known as Kingnut Hickory, has the largest sweetest nuts of all the Hickories.