Southwest Ohio group preserves precious earth

I spent three days last week at the Highland Nature Sanctuary in Highland County. It’s part of the Arc of Appalachia preserve system that stretches between Cincinnati and Portsmouth, but is largely concentrated around the picturesque Rocky Fork Gorge.

The Arc is a private non-profit corporation headed by Nancy Stranahan. She is delightful and dedicated to preserving Ohio’s great natural landmarks, important plants and Native American earthworks. She acknowledges the Arc and its 130 volunteers could use more publicity.

Highland Nature Sanctuary was once Seven Caves – a 1950s-era theme park where paying visitors could explore natural bridges and caves along Rocky Fork Creek. Beginning in 1995, Stranahan and her non-profit gradually began buying land near the park, eventually acquiring the park itself. It is now open free to the public as a forestry preservation and hiking destination during warm weather months.

Private donations, loans from The Nature Conservancy and Clean Ohio grants helped Stranahan buy up more significant land parcels in southwest Ohio for preservation. There are now 16 sites in the Arc, totaling nearly 5,000 acres. Five are open to the public for exploration.

Arc staffers also manage Serpent Mound earthworks for the Ohio History Connection.

Along with land, the non-profit acquired houses and structures. Five have been renovated into overnight lodges where visitors can stay and savor their surroundings. 

Beechcliff and Ravenwood lodges will accommodate up to 10 people each and are geared toward conferences and meetings. Stranahan discourages weddings, however!

Leatherwood Lodge has two bedrooms and Cave House has three.

We stayed in the Eyrie Suite of The Hermitage – a double that overlooks Rocky Fork Creek. The Eyrie has one queen size bed, a bathroom and a small-scale kitchen. But we spent most of our time on the cozy deck, listening to birds and the rushing waters beneath us.

No one occupied the adjoining Zen River Suite during our stay. Its bedroom with wrap-around windows extends over the gorge and offers a breathtaking view. But unfortunately, it holds only a full-size bed.

Although Stranahan’s intent continues to be the preservation of southern Ohio’s natural features and rare plants, she’s ambitiously branched into saving important Native American sites – especially Hopewell mounds.

“This area, especially Ross County, was once the capital of Native American culture in the East,” she said.

 In 2014, the Arc acquired Junction Earthworks near Chillicothe. By the end of this summer, Stranahan hopes to add nearby Steel Earthworks to the list. 

“It (the Arc) turned out to be much more than I anticipated,” she said. “I never had a grand plan. It’s all opportunity driven.”

Additional information about upcoming projects, events, hiking and lodging is available at arcofappalachia.org.

Categories: Ohio – Jane Beathard

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