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Nonprofit partners to save nature preserve

Arc of Appalachia joins with Camp Wyandot in Hocking County

Céilí Doyle Columbus Dispatch | USA TODAY NETWORK ROCKBRIDGE – In the basin of an ancient rock formation, a few miles from Route 33, Kris Cline-Strawser points toward a boulder where you can still spot her name and a year, 1974, firmly traced into the limestone.

When Cline-Strawser was a young girl, she would escape into the beauty of her family’s land – a sprawling 250-acre spread of forest, farmland and creeks about 45 minutes outside of Columbus in Hocking County – and trek to Salt Peter, a natural rock formation carpeted by gnarled tree roots and bright, green moss.

At 10 years old she made dozens of trips to that particular rock, etching her name visit after visit, much like her parents, Jack and Helen Cline, did decades before, and similar to the generations of Salt Peter’s visitors before them, who have been carving their names into rock since the 1800s.

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Named after the potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter, visitors mined from its limestone walls to make gunpowder in preparation for the Civil War, the rock formation is a hidden gem.

“I spent a lot of time crying over the sale,” Cline-Strawser said, referring to her family’s decision to part with their land. “But I wanted to ensure the property was saved (from development).”

Cline-Strawser’s mother, Helen, sold the property to Arc of Appalachia, a regional conservation nonprofit group, and Camp Wyandot, the local children’s summer camp that borders the Cline Farm Reserve.

The organizations collaborated to secure a $1.44 million grant from the Clean Ohio Fund, a bond issue doled out to applicants whose mission is to conserve natural land.

The Cline family didn’t want their shelter of hickory, oak and eastern hemlock trees with five-plus miles of headwater streams developed into residential housing or overpriced rentals, Camp Wyandot’s director, Connie Coutellier said.

“We’re just elated,” Coutellier said. “We had to keep at it, and it took longer than we thought, but everyone turned out pleased.”

Camp Wyandot’s success to salvage the mosaic of natural wonders neighboring their land was never certain.

Nikki Spretnak is a former camper, board member and still a long-time volunteer. She recalled receiving a text message from a Cline relative, informing her that the family matriarch, Helen, was willing to sell.

It was Aug. 15, 2019, and she immediately sprang into action.

The original deadline to file an application for a grant from the Clean Ohio Fund was April 10, 2020.

Spretnak led the effort to meet its requirements: seeking appraisals for the land and working with a former nature preserve manager at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to catalogue the rare and endangered plants on the property.

Then COVID-19 hit. Folks at Camp Wyandot weren’t sure when they could apply for the Clean Ohio Fund.

As the pandemic became a part of daily life, it became clear the money would still be available. But in August 2020 they hit another snag.

“We learned we couldn’t apply because our organization is not a conservation agency,” Spretnak said.

Camp Wyandot was not an accredited conservation nonprofit under Ohio Revised Code, and the Ohio Works Public Commission’s director cautioned Spretnak and Coutellier not to apply.

But Spretnak was undeterred. If the camp couldn’t own the Cline Farm Reserve, she would find an organization that could.

“The grant was only weeks away from being due when they came to us,” Nancy Stranahan said. “You have to be willing to work until 1 a.m. for days on end when you take on a project like this at the last minute – but we were willing.”

Stranahan, director and founder of Arc of Appalachia, said it was a nobrainer.

The conservation agency, camp and Helen Cline signed a tri-party agreement, affirming that the Arc of Appalachia would own the land, but that Camp Wyandot would have permanent access through a conservation easement.

Campers will have private access during the summer, and the Arc of Appalachia is designing a free trail system open to the public via Camp Wyandot by 2023, Stranahan said.

But folks interested in hiking the trails will have to obtain a permit online to reserve their time, she added.

“Hocking Hills is so well-loved, but it’s hard to have an experience in that premiere scenery where you’re not sharing it with hordes of people,” Stranahan said. “With the permit system there’s enough of an investment of effort it will keep the numbers way down and people can have a quiet, contemplative setting.”

Coutellier attended Camp Wyandot as a 7-year-old and believes in its mission to immerse children in nature.

The now-79-year-old is beyond thrilled that the partnership with the Arc of Appalachia has fully materialized and that the land will be protected forever and open to the public.

“It’s protection on our back door,” Coutellier added. “If it had gone to a developer the land goes right up to our last cabin.”

The commitment to preservation and education is what ultimately won Stranahan over. She believes that a public trail system through the Cline Farm Reserve will not only boost eco-tourism in the region, but offer a chance for people to break this bubble of isolation that the pandemic has only intensified.

Deep within the forest her family once owned, Kris Cline-Strawser carefully sidesteps through the brush on a recent visit.

Cline-Strawser, the sixth of the eight Cline children, lives on her grandparents’ old property, just outside of the Cline Farm Reserve. She said her father, Jack Cline, a strong proponent of property rights, also understood there is also an enormous responsibility that follows land acquisition.

Gazing at the trees towering above Salt Peter’s “brother” rock formation, Pepper Peter, Cline-Strawser nodded slightly before trudging down toward the creek to find Coutellier and Spretnak – the forest’s new stewards.

She thinks her dad would approve. Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ. cdoyle@dispatch.com @cadoyle_18

PHOTOS BY JOSHUA A. BICKEL/COLUMBUS DISPATCH

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