By Jane Beathard
The Arc of Appalachia nature preserves adorn southern Ohio’s hill country like jewels on a verdant green necklace.
As a nonprofit organization, the Arc has sheltered nearly 4,300 acres over the last 22 years in 16 preserve regions across southwest and south-central Ohio.
These 16 sites encompass important natural and historic areas between Highland County on the west and Perry County on the east. Their woodlands, caves, streams and prairies are home to some of the state’s most unique flora, fauna and features.
Executive Director Nancy Stranahan is the Arc’s moving spirit. The Cleveland native first fell in love with rolling and wooded southwest Ohio at age 18 when she came to the area to work as a naturalist with Ohio State Parks.
By 1995, Stranahan had set her sights on preserving at least a piece of the region for posterity.
“I wanted to leave a legacy of a natural area,” she said. “But I couldn’t find anything appropriate.”
A Sunday drive down Cave Road to Fort Hill changed all that.
Stranahan and her former husband spotted a “for sale” sign on a 45-acre property adjoining the former Seven Caves theme park on Rocky Fork Gorge in Highland County.
“We bought it and started to make payments,” Stranahan said.
They also bought an eighth cave not part of the park, then obtained a low-interest loan from The Nature Conservancy to buy 47 more acres on the park’s perimeter. The nonprofit Highlands Nature Sanctuary was the result.
It was a low-key beginning that drew a variety of supporters who also valued the unique ecology of southwest Ohio. Their private donations and fundraising efforts helped add Beechcliff Education Center to the Sanctuary in 1996 and preserve some of the most spectacular sections of Rocky Fork Gorge in the years that followed.
“We bought up more than 60 properties — totaling 1,876 acres — on Cave Road by 2005,” Stranahan said.
Their dream was — and is — to create an unbroken protected corridor along the lower 10 miles of the gorge between Rocky Fork and Paint Creek State Parks.
That vision broadened in 2004, when they added three important parcels in Adams County — their first acquisitions outside the gorge. The Arc Of Appalachia system was born.
Volunteers cut and maintain hiking trails, conduct educational programs and remove pesky invasive plants. Portions of the Sanctuary and some other acquired sites are open to the public free of charge.
“We wanted to protect the Sanctuary’s trees and let (the public) use the trails,” Stranahan noted.
Their most important purchase came in 2005 and included the last 13 acres of the old Seven Caves theme park — including the actual caves.
Founded in 1928, the private park had attracted as many as 100 paying visitors a day in summer months. But interest in outdoor pursuits had declined by the late 1990s and the park had fallen on hard times.
Enthusiastic fundraising helped meet the owners’ $600,000 asking price.
Volunteers immediately began restoring the caves’ natural ecosystem. An Appalachian Forest Museum, staffed by volunteers between April and October, replaced the park’s former gift shop.
In the 12 years since, Arc activists have continued to acquire naturally unique areas in Adams County — which is considered by botanists as the most floristically diverse in Ohio.
Most of the 22 buildings that stood on the properties were demolished. But five were renovated as fully furnished overnight facilities for groups and individuals who want to spend more time immersed in the region’s beauty.
“Because I worked in Ohio State Parks, I was interested in overnight rentals,” Stranahan said.
By the end of 2016, the Arc protected 4,272 acres with five lodges and 34 miles of hiking trails through some of Ohio’s most breath-taking landscapes. Goal of the current fundraising campaign is to add 900 more acres.
But Stranahan and the Arc’s 1,700 donors are not resting on their laurels.
Most recently, they’ve turned their attention to preserving some of Ohio’s Native American (Hopewell Culture) earthworks. A few will be joined with natural areas already part of the Arc.
“Twenty-four (earthworks) are in Ross County alone,” Stranahan said. “It was once the capital of Native American culture in the East.”
Between 2,200 and 1,500 years ago, the Hopewells were one of the most artistic and geographically influential people to have ever lived on the entire continent. They traveled extensively and artifacts from as far west as the Yellowstone River and as far north as Upper Michigan have been found in their Ohio earthworks, Stranahan said.
Junction and Spruce Hill Earthworks came under Arc protection in recent years. With the help of other nonprofits, Stranahan hopes to protect Steel and Glenford Fort Earthworks in the near future.
The Arc also manages earthworks at Serpent Mound and Fort Hill for the Ohio History Connection.
Everything is run by a handful of staff and 250 or so dedicated volunteers, Stranahan noted.
“It’s turned out to be more than I ever anticipated,” she said. “I never had a grand plan; it’s all been opportunity driven.”
GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL IN THE ARC
The Arc of Appalachia offers a variety of ways to get away from it all during warm-weather months.
THE ARC OF APPALACHIA
Check out arcofappalachia.org for news on upcoming events and the latest fundraising campaign.
7660 Cave Road
Bainbridge OH 45612
Five lodges and retreat centers on or near Rocky Fork Gorge in Highlands Nature Sanctuary are fully furnished with antiques and rustic furniture. They are priced from $105 to $250 a night.
Ravenwood Lodge and Beechcliff Retreat Center will accommodate up to 10 visitors each. Ravenwood Lodge rents for $150 to $250 per night, depending on use of the first floor or entire facility. Beechcliff Retreat Center is $250 per night or $1,250 a week.
The Zen River and Eyrie Suites at The Hermitage have one bedroom each and are rented (separately) only to adults for a minimum of two nights. The Zen River Suite is $110 per night; the Eyrie Suite is $105 per night.
Leatherwood Cabin has two bedrooms and is also available to families for a minimum of two nights. Rental is $110 per night.
Updated information is available at arcofappalachia.org/lodges.
The newest addition to the preserve happened earlier this year, with 118 acres added to an existing 67-acre tract near Otway. The Golden Star Lily will be protected in this area. The flower is common in this area, the only place in Ohio.