From railroad to classroom: Euclid works to preserve Green Creek ravine

On Sept. 25, Euclid residents along with 40 volunteers from the accounting firm Ernst & Young gathered for a cleanup of the Euclid Railroad-Green Creek Corridor.
For years, the property had been a dumping ground for an informal paintball club, and so the mud-splashed volunteer group was challenged with tearing down forts built from lumber and ratty blankets. Discarded wooden pallets were broken down and burned, while volunteers dragged nearly two tons worth of scrap metal, tires, old tables and other miscellaneous trash from the otherwise unused nine-acre parcel. Some yutz had even left a satellite dish to rust away among the trees.

"We had a blast," says Ben Barr, an advisory consultant with Ernst & Young. "It was a great opportunity to pull away from work and focus on things that can bring value to the community. 

Though the City of Euclid plans to remove additional debris from the stream corridor, the Cleveland suburb is already casting ahead to an exciting future where open greenspace is preserved as an outdoor learning area for students from Euclid and throughout the region.
Just as critically, planners aim to protect this environmentally sensitive space from any future development which would harm the natural watershed or stream area. No manmade structures or hard surfaces means less stormwater runoff into Lake Erie, to which the stream eventually flows.
"The land can be used for a variety of low-impact purposes," says Paul Beno, zoning commissioner for Euclid and one of the major forces behind the greenspace project. "We're serious about our mission of open-space preservation."
Learning the land
The Green Creek stream corridor runs south of Euclid Avenue along the Cleveland border. Euclid acquired the land through a tax foreclosure by the Euclid Railroad Company and a $38,100 grant from the State of Ohio Public Works Commission (OPWC). The grant agreement requires Euclid to uphold the tenets of OPWC's Clean Ohio Green Space Conservation Program.

The state program is designed to safeguard forests, wetlands and other natural holdings that support areas of ecological or historical importance. From an environmental perspective, Green Creek stands as one of a half dozen large ravines that run over four miles along the course of Euclid Avenue before reaching Lake Erie.
The site also provides a window into Cleveland's industrial past, notes Beno. The former Euclid Railroad, which operated from 1883 until 1967, used the ravine as a 1.5-mile throughway to quarries in South Euclid. As signs of the dilapidated track remain, Beno says the ravine's conversion into a learning lab could buttress a STEM curriculum while also educating visiting students on the region's rail-powered legacy.
The City of Euclid has connected with the Euclid Board of Education on the parcel's support of classroom activities. While a formal agreement has yet to be signed, Beno says he expects the diverse natural setting to provide a hands-on element to disciplines like hydrology, biology and botany.
"The land and water along with plants and animals is the classroom," says Beno. "We intend to provide a few benches and tables to facilitate student and teacher exchanges, but the land itself should be the draw."
The Euclid School District's relationship with the parcel could resemble a similar cooperative endeavor between Wickliffe City Schools and Lake Metroparks, notes Euclid school board member Kathy DeAngelis. In Wickliffe's case, the 70-acre greenspace adjacent to the city's high school is currently utilized for lab studies and field trips.
"It will take some time for Euclid's schools to come up with curriculum that fits state standards, but this is going to be very positive in the long run," says DeAngelis.
Beno anticipates the outdoor learning space to serve classroom activity by fall of 2016. Organizers will offer the lab to any school in Northeast Ohio that expresses an interest.   

"The great thing about an outdoor lab of this size is that it can provide space for many classrooms, as long as they coordinate their schedules and respect the land and each other," says Beno.
Wide open spaces
The land acquisition phase of the project was completed in August, with Euclid now holding clear title to the plot. Cleveland's Land Bank Program has obtained another half an acre of wooded hillside in support of Euclid's efforts to create a unified preserve.
State-sponsored deed restrictions enforceable by hefty monetary penalties will ensure Green Creek remains pure in purpose, says Roy Larick, a Euclid historian, anthropologist, author and founder of  Bluestone Heights, an organization that supports sustainable planning and development in Northeast Ohio.

In early October, Larick, Beno and Euclid resident Paul Kovalcik were awarded a $2,000 grant from the philanthropic arm of energy supplier Dominion. The grant will fund an environmental survey of the Green Creek ravine region, studying forest floor foliage and the effects of white-tailed deer on the landscape, among other impacts. Ultimately, the study will provide baseline data for future generations using the learning laboratory.
"Our goal is for people to understand our local environment and the rocks and waters we live upon," says Larick, who has spent a decade taking interested parties on walking tours of what he calls the region's "hidden gem."
Euclid’s escarpment ravines are the city’s only remaining larger parcels of undeveloped land, Larick says. The four largest waterways, including Green Creek, each comprise 20 to 30 acres of secondary growth hardwood forest. Using a portion of this land as a classroom can be part of the overall stewardship effort in the years ahead.
"It's one thing to study these issues in a textbook, but this (outdoor lab) gets students out and teaches them in place," says Larick.
Euclid official Beno is hoping to recruit other organizations interested in the preservation effort. Local youth development nonprofit members have already approached him about various educational opportunities. Beno expects other potential partners to step forward in time.
"This project will only gain momentum," he says. "We're still at the ground floor here; there's lots of work to be done."

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.