Earth care takes root along Little Darby

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Messenger photos by Kristy Zurbrick
Wesley Miller (left) and Ian Harper drag a mature honeysuckle plant to a brush pile where other students used handsaws to break into smaller pieces. Miller and Harper are sophomores at West Jefferson High School.

(Posted April 24, 2019)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

They looked like ants industriously moving about the hillside, each with a specific task. Some pulled, some lopped, others hauled, and yet others chopped.

In short order, the group of about 100 volunteers, most of them high school students on their last day of spring break, cleared a chunk of the Little Darby State Scenic River Preserve of invasive honeysuckle plants. They also planted or took home with them 100 tree seedlings.

The effort, dubbed the Earth Day Challenge, took place on April 22. The preserve is located at 5995 Lafayette Plain City Road in Monroe Township and is part of the Madison County Park District. The Little Darby Scenic River runs through the property.

(From left) Brianna Conkel, Harley Johnson and Alie Gookin get started on pulling honeysuckle from a section of land in the heart of the Little Darby State Scenic River Preserve. All three are sophomores at West Jefferson High School.

Mike Harkleroad was thrilled with the dry, sunny day, and impressed with the turnout. The West Jefferson High School biology and anatomy teacher is responsible for the “challenge” part of the Earth Day Challenge. He challenged not only his students to pitch in, but also put a call out to other schools in Madison County to take part, too. Some 60 West Jefferson students showed up, along with more than a dozen students from the outdoor careers program at Tolles Career and Technical Center in Plain City.

Madison Whitt, a West Jefferson senior and member of the school’s award-winning Envirothon team, was among those toting loppers. This was her second time visiting the preserve to clear honeysuckle, a prolific understory plant that outcompetes native plants by gobbling up soil nutrients and blocking sunlight.

Heather Doherty, central Ohio scenic river manager with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, holds an uprooted honeysuckle plant in one hand while laying out the plan for removal of the invasive species from a hillside at the Little Darby State Scenic River Preserve. Listening are a group of approximately 100 youth and adult volunteers participating in the Earth Day Challenge on April 22.

When asked why she gave up her last day of spring break to chop down honeysuckle, Whitt said, “I’m very passionate about saving the environment. I want to be an environmental scientist and do something big to make an impact.”

Field work like the honeysuckle project is a step in that direction, she said, and a way to make a direct impact. Her reward this year was seeing wildflowers blooming in spots she helped to clear last year.

For Mary Mertz, the reward is seeing a new generation latch onto preservation and protection of the environment. Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and members of her staff were among the volunteers at the Earth Day Challenge.

“We love the Darby–Big and Little. It’s a very important river that we think is absolutely imperative to protect, so we want to put in every bit of effort,” she said, adding that she was happy to see teenagers take part in that effort, proving that the environment isn’t just a cause of the old guard.

Mary Mertz (second from left), director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, welcomes volunteers to the Earth Day Challenge. Also delivering welcome messages were Bob Gable, a West Jefferson native and ODNR’s scenic rivers program manager, Madison County Commissioner David Hunter, and Julia Cumming, program administrator for the Madison Soil and Water Conservation District.

Mertz is forming a youth advisory council and invited participants in the Earth Day Challenge to consider signing up. She wants young people to help shape decision-making that will affect future generations.

The Earth Day Challenge was coordinated by the Madison County Park District and Madison Soil and Water Conservation District. Other sponsors included the Darby Plains Pheasant Forever Chapter, Dwyers Brothers Hardware, the Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails, the Madison Conservation Foundation, Merchants National Bank, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Scenic Rivers Program, and Wal-Mart.

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