Volunteers Make Way at Meadowbrook

In July of 2021, Shirley Heinze’s stewardship staff and volunteers from Cleveland Cliffs began felling trees and clearing brush to create a new trail at the front of Meadowbrook Nature Preserve. It was just one aspect of a master plan guided by a vision that included making Meadowbrook more accessible to those protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last spring the trail was paved with finely-crushed gravel. The pulverized stone makes a much easier passage for those who might experience difficulty traversing some of Meadowbrook’s more rugged and often muddy trails. It also made viewing the preserve’s diverse array of plants and wildlife and its captivating scenery a reality for more visitors.

The highlighted space on the left outlines the boundaries of the project.

Carving out a trail disturbs the soil, though, and the ground had already been disrupted long ago. The property was originally part of a farm before it was sold to the Girl Scouts and repurposed as a camp. The general area where the new trailhead is located was likely part of a horse pasture at one time. Disturbed soil makes for easy pickings for invasive species like multiflora rose and round leaf bittersweet, unwelcome plants which have wasted no time insinuating themselves into the ecological conversation of the southernmost portions of the preserve.

In November of last year, volunteers embarked on a project to thin out the woody invasive species that had begun to thrive along the new trail. Originally these workdays were intended to encompass one or maybe two Meadowbrook Monday engagements, during which we’d cut the target species that were visible along the trail itself, making it look a lot nicer to visitors coming to hike, bird, jog, or just unwind along the gravel pathway.

It didn’t take long to realize what we were up against. Even with the healthy attendance these volunteer workdays attracted, there was no way that two three-hour installments were going to cut it. Six total work hours would barely put a dent in the amount of invasives that crowded the edge of the trail. And the more we cut, the more we could see just how far back the nonnative colonies went. These intrusive species were dispersed throughout the entire interior portion of the trail loop. In some spots, bittersweet and nonnative rose had taken over completely, choking out saplings and monopolizing the soil.

Volunteers Elaina Chavez and Kevin Finley clear invasives along the trail on a Meadowbrook Monday in November.

Ultimately, and with guidance from our Stewardship staff and support from regular volunteers who were committed to the work they were doing, I chose to continue the project as long as the woody invasive treatment season would allow and volunteers kept coming back for more. Being a new trail with a designated inclusive purpose, it was important that the trail showcase the ecological principles that Shirley Heinze preserves are known for. For many first-time visitors, the trail is also the first look they get at Meadowbrook. It’s the one that’s located nearest our new pavilion and the parking lot. So it was important to our volunteer crew to really make it shine.

Only taking out the trailside rose, bittersweet, and autumn olive was a mostly aesthetic exercise. The larger plants off-trail would continue to propagate and encroach along the trail. In order to really knock the target species back, we needed to veer off the trail and push into the brush. Two Meadowbrook Mondays became four, and in the new year we added two more standalone workdays to complete the project. And by “complete,” I simply mean combing the entire area around the trail and inside the loop, cutting invasives and treating stumps as we went, and accomplishing that before the end of the treatment season. The target species will never be completely eradicated, and it’ll likely take a few years to achieve what our Stewardship Ecologist Doug Botka calls “good control.”

The interior of the loop was dense and choked with vines and stalks, as volunteers Doug Elish and Dana Campolattara discovered.

In the coming months, Stewardship staff will treat the resprouts that emerge around the trail, along with any invasive herbaceous species they come across. The combination of cutting and treating the target species in the fall and treating the resprouts in the summer is kind of a “one-two punch,” an effective strategy against woody invasive species. Often a newly-opened area will attract more invasives to colonize it, so planting native plugs in some of the areas we’ve cleared out could become another strategy in the management plan. Next season, I plan on combing the whole area again. Although we’ll be far from free of invasive species on the ADA trail, it won’t take as many workdays to cover the area now that we’ve had this initial push.

Working this volunteer project has definitely been an adventure. Bittersweet vines tripped us and made progress difficult. Thickets of multiflora rose and blackberry scratched our hands and snagged our sleeves and pant legs, the hooked little thorns making temporary marionettes of us. There’s a reason I refer to the season’s volunteers as our “Woody Warriors.”

During the course of the project, we witnessed towering trees come crashing down in the nearby ravine and huge flocks of Cackling Geese passing high overhead. We listened to the screeches and triumphant shrieks of courting Red-shouldered Hawks and marveled at the elegant and understated beauty of tulip, shagbark hickory and bitternut hickory saplings we freed from the strangling spiral clutches of bittersweet vines.

American cancer-root (Conopholis americana) was originally documented at Meadowbrook during this project.

One of my favorite moments was uncovering an American cancer-root (Conopholis americana) plant on the interior of the loop, its brown, dried-out stalks brittle in winter’s negligent caress. It’s a parasitic species, but harmless to its tree host. The uniquely-shaped plant is found in high-quality remnant habitat but can’t tolerate too much disturbance. Considering where we found it, it’s a pretty good indication that our restoration is headed in the right direction. What’s more, the species hadn’t yet been recorded in Meadowbrook’s master flora list. It’s a welcome addition to the diverse array of species found there.

On February 8th, we wrapped up our work on the trail for the season. We’d covered a total of 54,707 square feet, or roughly 1.25 acres of land, during the course of the project. It was an impressive effort undertaken by a total of fifteen volunteers, seven of whom helped form part of our volunteer program’s core woody invasive crew. In addition, seven of those fifteen were new volunteers cultivated by the invasive management project on the ADA trail.

After the volunteers had gone home, and I’d put all our equipment away, I sat on the half-log bench at the first bend in the trail and scanned the project area. I took in how different it looked, how “uncongested” it seemed, and about how proud I was of what the volunteers had accomplished. Volunteer engagement has been a major component of the trail from its inception.

While I collected my thoughts, a couple of shapes swooped into view. Two hawks cruised into the area we’d just finished, flying fast and low. It was as if they were checking out the changes we’d made to their surroundings. Right after that, three deer picked their way through the same area, coming from the other direction. They also seemed like they were inspecting the improved habitat. I watched as they crossed the gravel path, their hooves making telltale impressions in the crushed stone. In another moment they disappeared down the ravine. The area through the loop has long been a doe crossing, a real ‘whitetail cut’ through their moraine forest habitat. Similar to the find of American cancer-root, I take encounters like these as confirmation that we’re on the right path.

Next time you’re out at Meadowbrook, check out the volunteers’ hard work on the trail, which should be even more evident as the spring foliage emerges in earnest. Like the returning deer, they now have a deeper connection with the land, an emotional investment that roots deep in the soul. It’s hard to underestimate the momentum and direction that volunteer involvement has given the development of the trail from the beginning. We’re truly blessed and truly grateful for our volunteer force and for their time, talents, generosity and passion.

Interested in getting involved? Explore upcoming volunteer opportunities linked here.