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Sawmill Wetlands: Moving Beyond Preservation to Restoration

February 2024

In the fall of 2020, the FLOW newsletter contained an article about “Preserving the Sawmill Wetlands Educational Area.” For those who are not familiar with the story of the saving of this special place – a quick summary. In a publication for the Garden Clubs of Ohio, one of our volunteers called it a love story about a little piece of green, a David and Goliath story, and a story of how private citizens went up against a developer and his friends in high places, and saved this 17 acre piece of mature oak-hickory woodlands and 3 adjoining vernal pool wetlands. The organization Friends of the Sawmill Wetlands, citizens, garden clubs, environmental organizations, and members of Columbus government rallied around the cause. For 5 years, the little wetlands was tied up in a legal battle. In July 2018 the Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear the developer’s appeal of a lower court ruling and the battle was over! In 2019, FLOW invited the Friends of the Sawmill Wetlands to come under their very large umbrella. This has proven to be a highly successful partnership. Since 2020 and with the guidance of FLOW, hundreds of shrubs, small trees, and some very large trees have been planted. Flower beds for pollinators have been, and continue to be, planted on the hillside (a four-acre plot which borders the wetland).  (Read the full history on our wiki here)

Informational kiosk 

pollinator garden

A view of one of the pollinator gardens

Working on the hill

Working on the hill

Then, and now, the wetlands provide a quiet, peaceful and beautiful place for nearby residents to escape from the urban concrete jungle nearby.

With the help of FLOW’s grant writing expertise, funding through the Ohio Environmental Education Fund was secured for educational signage, in line with the name and mission of Sawmill Wetlands Educational Area. There is now a beautiful and well-used kiosk with posters switched out for the seasons. The funding also made possible story boards along the boardwalk, installed by our partner the Ohio Division of Natural Resources, as well as tree identification signage along the boardwalk and the foot path bordering the wetlands.

Signage

Plant signage helps visitors identify common natives

informational signage

Installing informational signage

bench by vernal pool

Benches allow a relaxed visit to the wetland

Because of FLOW’s strong ties with the Ohio State University, Sawmill is being used as a living laboratory for students. In the last few years, students from Ohio State University have conducted Capstone studies on Wetlands Forest Assessment, Hydrology Assessment, Trail Camera and Anabat Analysis (five bat species were identified). Additionally, a study titled “A Wildlife Survey within the Urban Landscape” showed that Sawmill mammals included raccoons, weasel, groundhog, flying squirrels, chipmunks, white tailed deer and gray squirrels. Two graduate students are completing studies now on ground nesting bees and urban moths. The preliminary results of the bee study showed that of 21 sites in Franklin and Delaware County, Sawmill had by far the most ground nesting bees! Two times last year the Midwest Biodiversity Institute brought classes to the wetlands to teach ORAM wetlands assessment.

Sawmill is blessed to have a core group of hard working, always dependable volunteers. Several of them have been involved since the early days of the fight to save Sawmill. They build benches, repair the boardwalk, maintain the prairie and pollinator beds in the parking lot, plant and water trees, battle invasive species, and of course, pick up the ever-present trash blown in from the retail areas nearby.

tree id

Tree ID signage

trash along fence

The never ending trash

memorial sign

Memorial plaque on the hill

Tim, one of our long time volunteers, has been monitoring the nest boxes (there are now 17 of them) at Sawmill since 2014. He records what birds are residing in each box, how many eggs are laid and how many hatchlings are produced. The birds at Sawmill were negatively impacted when the emerald ash borer killed the majority of the large ash trees at Sawmill. We hope that as the planted trees and shrubs grow, produce berries and nuts and attract insects (bird food), we will be able to see an increase in the bird population at Sawmill. Over the last 8 years, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, house wrens, eastern bluebirds, tree swallows and northern flickers have used the nest boxes as well as the (non-bird) flying squirrels. These birds are secondary cavity nesters. Normally they use cavities excavated by woodpeckers but may also use the supplemental “cavities” (boxes)) that are provided for them. There are many other birds who are not cavity nesters who may also nest at Sawmill. These include northern cardinals, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, white breasted nuthatches, Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks and mallard ducks. In addition to our resident birds, Sawmill is an oasis for those like the warblers who stop over briefly on their Spring and Fall migrations. Most warblers will continue on to the northern US and Canada where they will nest and raise their young. We will get to see them at Sawmill again in the fall. They will be headed back to their winter homes in Central and South America. We hope they get the food they need to prepare for their long journey south. Area birders have observed, identified, and recorded 122 different bird species at Sawmill!

Volunteers have planted several hundred small trees and shrubs at Sawmill over the years. We have learned that there are many challenges – rabbits and deer eat them, and the new plants want to be watered … a LOT that first year, especially. As the summers get hotter and drier, the challenges are likely to get worse. We became aware of 2 studies that researchers with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center conducted to answer a simple question: What tree-planting strategies work best?  Together with a brigade of 100 citizen scientists, the researchers planted some 20,000 native saplings in all.  The answer they wound up with was unexpected. The trees that were growing best were ones that were coming up from rootstock and seeds in the soil! Trees can grow themselves!  “Natural “ reforestation may be an unsung partner in the fight against climate change, not replacing large scale tree planting efforts, but working along side them. These studies replicate what we are beginning to see at Sawmill – countless tree seedlings are coming up on their own, once they can get sunlight again after the invasive honeysuckle is removed.  We are going to concentrate in 2024 on fencing and marking these seedlings to protect them (the deer don’t care if we planted the trees or if they came up on their own, they still eat them).

tree sapling

Newly planted trees have to be protected from the deer.

brush cleanup

Invasive removal leaves us with brush to dispose of.

hickory bud

A hickory bud opens along the boardwalk.

Ridding Sawmill of non-native invasive species is an unending battle. Bush honeysuckle and Callery pear both form fast-growing thickets which leaf out before our natives, suck up the soil nutrients, and produce heavy shade that prevents our natives from surviving. We have partnered with Franklin County’s Environmental Court over the last few years. They not only help in cutting invasives, but also in hauling the brush away!

For those of us who are closely involved with Sawmill’s restoration on a daily basis, it is hard not to be impatient or feel like we aren’t working hard enough or fast enough. We know climate change is here and there are likely going to be negative impacts in the future about which we are not even aware. It helps to look backward at what has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time at this special place and to have confidence that with our community partners, it will continue to be a site of restoration and greater habitat diversity.

Photos by Sally Biancone, Carol Shurlow, Carolyn Turner, Larry Turner, Ellie Nowels

More info on Sawmill on our Wiki page HERE

bluebird

Visiting bluebird

checking a bird box

This bird box has been taken over by flying squirrels and filled with acorns!

Raccoon

Raccoons find a safe home here.