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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Conflict at Darby Creek

Air Date: Week of

In central Ohio, farmers and conservationists are debating the fate of a large tract of land that includes some of the most productive farmland in the country. The Columbus office of the Nature Conservancy is leading an effort to preserve a clean river system as a wildlife refuge. Farmers are protesting. They say that if plans for the refuge go through they'll be driven off the land. From Columbus, Joe Smith reports.


CURWOOD: In central Ohio, farmers and conservationists are debating the fate of a large tract of land that includes some of the most productive farm land in the country. The Columbus office of The Nature Conservancy is leading an effort to preserve a clean river system as a wildlife refuge. But farmers are protesting. They say if plans for the refuge go through, they'll be driven off the land. From Columbus, Joe Smith reports.

(Silverware clanks; background conversation)

SMITH: There are few things in life that will get people to a 6:30 breakfast meeting. Even for famously early risers like farmers, there better be a good reason.

SHANNON: You hate to see this land go out of production permanently.

SMITH: For corn and soybean grower Gary Shannon and about a half-dozen other farmers talking strategy over eggs and oatmeal, the reason is their land. Mr. Shannon says they feel their community and livelihoods are threatened by conservationists.

SHANNON: Being out there, working with the soil, that's my church. That's my religion. Nothing makes me feel any better than working with the soil or, in my case, I have some brood cows. When things are tough I go out and I lean on a fence and I watch my dozen young calves frolicking, I mean, carefree. That's a peace and a tranquility that so few of us know today.

SMITH: What worries these farmers is a proposal to establish a wildlife refuge in Ohio's Darby Creek watershed. Retiring farmland and replanting the tall grass prairies that blanketed this area 200 years ago. The plan is a joint effort by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and The Nature Conservancy. Initial reports put the refuge at 50,000 acres. Officials now say the final size hasn't been determined and it's likely to be much smaller than that. The coalition also is proposing a 120-foot protective corridor along the Big and Little Darby Creeks that would be off- limits to development and farming. Jim Stewart, whose farm is situated between the Darby streams, says he supports the proposed protective corridor but not the refuge because it would put him and his neighbors out of business.

STEWART: They're talking a little mosaic right now, where they can intersperse farming with the prairie. Their percentages were like 80% prairie and 20% farming ground. We think that's a little steep. We think maybe farming ground ought to be 80% and prairie 20%. We're not going to vote for it as proposed.

SMITH: Farmers and conservationists both value the Darby watershed for the same reason: it's some of the most pristine land and water in the country.

(Footfalls through tall grass)

SMITH: Walking toward the Big Darby Creek, you pass some old oak trees and huge maples. There are young saplings in an area that was once a farm field. Terry Devlin, Project Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, says protecting the 88 miles of the Darby Stream system is a top priority.

DEVLIN: As we walk down here and look at it, it's a very slow, meandering, kind of little creek. But in it is over 103 species of fish and 38 species of mussels, which most biologists will tell you is off the chart. So it's for some reason maintained the kind of diversity you'd usually only find in a rainforest.

SMITH: Darby organizers say they're not trying to run farmers off their land. Far from it. They say agriculture gets most of the credit for the environmental purity of the area. But with the Columbus suburbs fast approaching, farmers will be enticed by developers offering top dollar for this land. Organizers say they can't win a bidding war, but they can encourage land owners who are looking to sell to offer their property to the preserve. The result could be a checkerboard refuge where tall grass prairies would be interspersed with farms and developments They say that's not ideal, but Ms. Devlin says that with a biological gem like the Darby, preserving some is better than none.

DEVLIN: The Darby Plains was the easternmost edge of the tall grass prairies of the United States. It stopped here. And before the land was drained for farming, pipes put in the ground so that the water was drained out and cleared, we had probably the best tall grass prairie because it had the richest amount of species of anywhere else in the United States was right here at the Darby. So that the refuge area then becomes extremely historically important to restore.

SMITH: Even if much of the land is donated as organizers hope, the project could cost up to $90 million. The appeal for land donations worries John Wilson, who along with his wife farms over 2,500 acres, nearly all of it leased. If his landlord donates property to the refuge, Mr. Wilson says he could be put out of business.

WILSON: A lot of our landlords are older people, and if they don't have kids that are interested in the farm they would just as soon have it in a refuge as have it in houses. So yeah, that's a big fear of ours.

SMITH: While the refuge project is supposed to curb suburban sprawl from Columbus, it could have the opposite effect. One building industry official says if the conservation plans are finalized, developers will buy up choice lots adjacent to the protected green space and draw home buyers. This will compound the land affordability issue for farmers. Jack Fisher is the executive vice president for the Ohio Farm Bureau. He says rising land prices benefit farmers looking to retire, but not new farmers with few assets.

FISHER: If they don't particularly have the opportunity to work with their family, getting the start from mom and dad or an uncle or someone like that, it is extremely difficult to compete with all these outside forces and put together enough land to start a farming operation.

SMITH: Nature Conservancy officials suggest that they have learned from past mistakes. A similar proposal in central Ohio in the 1980s was withdrawn in the face of local opposition. They say it suffered from a top-down approach that excluded public comment. Organizers say they won't make that mistake here. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has okayed preliminary plans, but there will be many more public meetings and government studies before further action is taken. Even then, project organizers say it could take 20 to 30 years before the Darby Creek Wildlife Refuge is completed. For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Smith in Columbus.



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