October 29, 2007
Logan County, Ohio
Alice & Carol O’Brien
A forty-year history of conservation planning is documented on the 120 acre farm purchased by Carol O’Brien in southeast Logan County in 1964. The first basic conservation plan, to determine soil types and the best use of the land, was completed by the Logan Soil and Water Conservation District staff in 1968. Today, approximately 100 of the 120 acres are enrolled in various conservation programs, including the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and the Scioto Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).
Farming was not a full-time occupation for either Carol or Alice in the early years. Carol worked in Columbus full time, first as a teacher and counselor with the Columbus Public Schools, and then, after receiving her Ph.D. from Ohio State University, as a clinical psychologist in private practice and as an adjunct faculty member at Ohio State University. Needless to say, managing a farm was not something to which she could completely dedicate her time. As the chief operating officer of the Mount Carmel Health System, Alice was in no better position to manage a farm. The O’Brien’s decided to lease the farm to a local farmer. Most weekends, Carol and Alice traveled to Logan County to work on the farm and oversee various improvements made over the years, including tree plantings, new barns, better drainage and a large pond.
After retiring at the end of 1999, the O’Brien’s moved to the farm permanently, and were able to devote most of their time to managing this unique property, which was originally settled in 1805 by newcomers from Virginia. Carol and Alice’s first project, after determining that the old 1820 house could not withstand a major renovation, was to build a new house, which was completed in late 2002.
Then it was time to take a fresh look at the land. Their farmer mentioned that several programs were available to help conserve the land and make better use of some areas that were not well suited for crops. They also learned that the creek forming the southwest boundary of the property was part of the headwaters of Big Darby Creek, one of Ohio’s National Scenic Rivers. This learning came expensively: a huge flood occurred on the property in 2003 after the streambed and adjoining trees and vegetation had been completely cleared some distance upstream. At that time, Carol and Alice saw firsthand what damage irresponsible practices and a lack of planning for downstream impacts could cause. They also could not help but notice the escalating pace of housing and commercial development in the fast-growing Route 33 corridor.
The two women decided to begin their conservation work by consulting with District Conservationist Bob Stoll. Bob added to the existing conservation plan, advising the establishment of two waterways and a grass filter strip adjacent to the creek in 2003. Next, in 2004, a ten acre wetland was easily established in an area that had been a chronic flooding problem for years. Buffer plantings of trees as well as warm season grasses were added around the wetland. Of course, new equipment had to be purchased to keep up with the maintenance!
As time passed and the beneficial effects of these programs became evident, Carol and Alice decided to convert as much of the farm as possible to conservation, and they also began discussions with The Nature Conservancy staff about long-term planning, In 2006, they discovered a 20+ acre tract of the farm qualified for the Scioto Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. As a result, more warm season grasses and a cool season grass area were added, and over 7000 native hardwood trees were planted.
Perhaps their greatest conservation challenge has been restoration of a 40 acre tract that was an old gravel pit, most recently used for pasture, and overgrown with invasive species. After two years of seemingly endless mowing, spraying, selective bulldozing and burning, this area has been transformed. With support from the WHIP program and Pheasants Forever, which helped with the areas that did not qualify for any governmental programs, it has been planted with warm season grasses and 2000 native hardwood trees.
To their surprise and delight, these habitat restoration projects have produced swift results. The wetland and nearby pond attract many species of local and migratory waterfowl and other birds. Amphibians of all kinds, including not only frogs, but also several species of turtles not usually seen in the upper Darby watershed, have appeared. Small mammals abound, and thus, of course, coyotes have become more commonplace. One of their most delightful moments occurred when two neighbors called within minutes of each other early one summer morning in 2006, both to excitedly report the call of a Bobwhite quail. This bird had not been heard in the area for nearly 40 years, since the great blizzard of 1968.
Carol and Alice’s conservation efforts began as an attempt to restore the Big Darby watershed, and to preserve a large tract of habitat from development. They have spent many hours not only educating themselves, but also working with and communicating with their neighbors, who now see and enjoy the great results and benefits of these conservation programs. “It’s an example of how all of us can work together. There are some people who do the farming, and there are some people who plant the trees,” said Alice, in response to a question about whether she believed habitat conservation or farming held more importance in the development of communities.
Today, after nearly 40 years of partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Soil and Water Conservation District, as well as other agencies and organizations, the efforts of the O’Briens and others like them are protecting the quality of the Big Darby Creek watershed, as well as the habitat that is so vital to our ecosystem.
Once they pass on, the O’Briens intend to gift the entire property to The Nature Conservancy, which is developing the Big Darby Creek Headwaters Nature Reserve just up the road. Through this legacy, the land and the life forms that depend on it will continue to thrive.