Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Turning back the clock in the Cuyahoga Valley

Where a river caught fire 50 years ago, Cuyahoga Valley is a pastoral patch of wilderness abutting Northeastern Ohio’s urban sprawl

To see how the U.S. National Park Service has played a role in preserving the Cuyahoga Valley in Northeast Ohio, there are at least two perspectives.

One, often shown to visitors, is a satellite view showing a verdant expanse of forest-green boxing out the speckled-gray suburban sprawl of Cleveland and Akron.

Another is experienced on the ground, like in the humid early-morning hours in June on Spice Acres, a farm owned by Cleveland chef Ben Bebenroth nestled into the woods along the Cuyahoga River.

Farm manager Andrea Heim showed off the hundreds of laying hens, the Mangalitsa hogs, the hops inching up their trestles, a greenhouse full of mixed vegetables, spices and garnishes — and one of the region’s only ginger and fig crops. Ms. Heim explains how the hens and pigs are natural tillers, the cover crops promote soil nutrition and all waste generated by the food is recycled. Cicadas sang incessantly from the thickets.

Spice Acres is one of 11 farms leasing from the federal government in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, about 33,000 acres of protected land about a two-hour drive northwest from Pittsburgh. By encouraging the same small-scale farming the valley was known for in the early 1800s, Ms. Heim said the park is “trying to bring this area back to those roots.”

The farm-leasing program is one of the central and more unique ways the National Park Service has played a role in resurrecting and preserving the aesthetic and culture of the pastoral river valley.

“Our job was to connect the farms to the outside world and connect the outside world to these farms,” said Darwin Kelsey, executive director of Countryside Conservancy, the nonprofit set up in 1999 to run the park service’s farm leasing program.

Eco disaster spurs preservation

When the park service first established a presence in Northeast Ohio, it came not long after one of the most devastating images of environmental degradation tugged at the nation’s green conscience: the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

1550 Boston Mills Road, Peninsula, Ohio 44264


Official website

  • Driving from Pittsburgh: 1 hour, 45 minutes (113 miles) from Pittsburgh
  • Hours: Open every day of the year; some areas close at dusk, others are open 24 hours.
  • Admission: Park is free, though some special events and concerts will require admission fee.
  • Special tips: Start at the Boston Store Visitor Center (Summer hours, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; fall, winter and spring hours, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) to check out historic artifacts, get a park overview and speak with a ranger. Brandywine Falls, a 65-foot high falls, is the second highest falls in Ohio. Observe 65-foot-high Brandywine Falls, walk the The Towpath Trail, which follows the historic route of the Ohio & Erie Canal that early settlers used to get crops and goods to market. Take a one-mile hike along the gigantic Ritchie Ledges, sandstone rock formations some 300 million years old.

Though not the first combustion on the river, which was contaminated with industrial pollutants and caught fire about a dozen times in the 1950s and 1960s, it captured widespread attention after Time Magazine published a photo of the blaze.

The Cuyahoga — which was described in the magazine as the river that “oozes rather than flows” and in which a person “does not drown but decays” — helped build public pressure to pass modern federal regulations on clean water in 1974.

Meanwhile, the desire for a national park had been simmering for years from grassroots organizations that feared the unfettered suburban growth would eventually eclipse the Cuyahoga Valley’s natural beauty, said Pamela Barnes, an education specialist ranger at the park.

“It looks like Cleveland and Akron would have become one, and we’d have Cleve-ron or something,” said Ms. Barnes, who runs the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center.

Established in 1974, Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area was part of a National Park Service initiative to put more parks near population centers — a challenge itself when it came to acquiring and protecting the land. The park used eminent domain to purchase some properties, while other property owners were granted a lifetime lease, she said.

But then the park realized it had an unusual challenge on its hands: Scattered throughout its property were dozens of abandoned farmsteads — some of which dated back to the early days of the Ohio-Erie Canal — that had been neglected for decades. The federal agency, with no expertise to restore or maintain those properties, spent a couple of decades wringing its hands before calling Mr. Kelsey.

“It is fixable,” Mr. Kelsey recalled saying to John Debo, the park’s superintendent at the time. Mr. Debo had been inspired by a trip to England, where that country’s parks system supports hundreds of thousands of small farmers who lease from the government. “You can put real people on real farms doing real farming, and it can be done in way that protects the values of the national parks.”

Reclaiming the farms

Mr. Kelsey, who grew up on a farm near Ithaca, N.Y., had to convince some skeptical conservationists that fully restoring the farmland would be put to the best use. “It was regarded as crazy” by some for the park service to invite humans onto patches of wilderness.

But eventually, Mr. Kelsey’s passion for open-air living museums and recreated farmland — he spearheaded the creation of the Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and the Lake Metroparks Farmpark east of Cleveland — won out.

Over about five years, he said, the newly founded nonprofit Countryside Conservancy took inventory of “the carcasses” — about 85 farms that were overgrown with malnourished soil and dilapidated barns and houses.

Of those 85, the group thought maybe 35 were both economically and environmentally viable to restore. “Once we got into it and saw how bad things really are and see how much it would cost to bring them back to life,” he said, only a dozen or so farms made the cut.

In advertising the land to farmers the Countryside Conservancy looks for a candidate with experience in agriculture, a solid business plan and a commitment to sustainable farming, said Tracy Emrick, director of operations and partnerships. As managers of public land, farm operators are also expected to be open to educational tours and media interviews. In the most recent request for proposals in 2015, the group asked applicants to present their case on 17 specific criteria.

Before leasing to farmers, the park fixes up the homes and some of the other structures on the farms. On one of the properties, Greenfield Berry Farm, an original 160-year-old barn on the verge of collapse was restored and now houses an occasional marketplace for visitors to buy farm produce, said Dan Greenfield, the farm’s operator.

Mr. Greenfield grows several kinds of berries and other produce and lives with his wife in a house that, he points out, bears an uncanny resemblance to the home of the straight-faced farming couple in the painting “American Gothic.”

“They’re looking for more small-scale, traditional, ecologically sustainable farms,” Mr. Greenfield said. If the park had not come in, “you’d be surrounded by condos and WalMarts. So thank goodness.”

Cuyahoga Valley drawing tourists

The program generated widespread interest. Since about 2005, the park has leased a total of 11 farm properties, with two farms leased this year. No two farms have too much overlap in their products and goals.

“They want a diversity of things — that’s probably one of the main reasons we got this place,” said AJ Neitenbach, who took a lease to run Neitenbach Farms, with his wife, Pamela, and their four children. The farm, among other things, grows medicinal herbs that Pamela uses to make herbal tinctures, teas and salves that they sell through a farm stand and at Mrs. Neitenbach’s private practice in Akron.

To restore the land, “it was more of a challenge than we knew at the time,” Mr. Neitenbach said. For several growing seasons, he’s been using dead leaves as fertilizer to help reinvigorate the soil. “It was just an open field, and it’d been farmed out. The soil had been used and not taken care of, and had been overgrown for three decades.”

Ms. Emrick said the farms are now realizing the benefits, however unintended, of the park’s original 1974 goal of making national parks more accessible to urban areas. Cuyahoga Valley attracted 2.3 million visitors in 2015, ranking it 38th among park service sites and putting it on par with the likes of Mount Rushmore, Valley Forge and Glacier National Park in Montana.

Hundreds of people pack the Countryside Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning — the first farmers’ market in a national park. Special event tours on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which include brunches and wine tastings while winding through the countryside, are especially popular draws.

In the sleepy town of Peninsula in the heart of the park, visitors can rent bicycles and connect with the Towpath Trail. The 85-mile path follows nearly the exact route of where, in the 19th century, mules pulled canal boats filled with passengers and goods up and down the Ohio and Erie Canal.

For what the farmers may give up by having Uncle Sam as their landlord — bureaucratic red tape for minor alterations to their property, the relative lack of privacy to name a few — the “direct access to your market” and guaranteed protection against development is worth it, Ms. Emrick said.

“Just like the river itself being restored, they brought farming back to life in the valley,” Ms. Emrick said, adding that the only limitation is funding to make the remaining sites livable. “If we had a guardian angel, we could do a few more sites.”

Ms. Barnes, the park ranger, said the environmental education facility, which she helped establish in the 1990s, often shows visitors the aerial view of the park. “It’s still so surprising that you get in the car (in Cleveland), and in 30 minutes you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore