Volunteers are rallying to preserve a hidden wetland in Mt. Healthy
An important but neglected preserve in Mt. Healthy is getting some much-needed TLC. A small band of volunteers is determined to make a difference at Forest Avenue Wetland Park.
It's a sunny Saturday in March as about a dozen people gather in work gloves and boots, eager to get to work
"I'm very happy to be here this morning, on this beautiful morning to cut some honeysuckle in Mt. Healthy," exclaims Lisa Haglund of Clifton. "I love to cut and kill honeysuckle!"
There's plenty of it here in this wetland preserve tucked away at the end of Mt. Healthy's Forest Avenue, bordered by Arlington Memorial Gardens to the west and Cross County Highway to the south.
Aaron Horsley is the force behind the Forest Avenue Renewal Project, the effort to rehabilitate the park. He moved to Mt. Healthy in December 2021.
"When I first got here, honeysuckle was all the way from the fence that borders up against the cemetery all the way to the parking lot. You couldn't even see any of this, it was so high," he recalls. "The whole lot was full of trash and benches were broke. Over a course of a year, I've been working with the city and with different organizations and community volunteers and we've been slowly trying to put it back together."
The Forest Avenue preserve is one of two parks created in Mt. Healthy in the mid-'90s as a federal requirement to offset wetlands destroyed by constructing Cross County Highway. The other is Heritage Park by the Hamilton Ave. exit ramp.
The front of the park used to be the old Mt. Healthy brickyard.
A lightly maintained walking path meanders through marshy areas and ponds. Thanks to Horsley's advocacy, there are some new benches scattered throughout. There's also a broken playset, some ramshackle picnic facilities, and lots of invasive plants and trash. Despite that, wildlife still use the wetlands, especially birds, deer and waterfowl.
Cordel George is a Mt. Healthy council member and has lived here all his life. He remembers visiting the park some 20 years ago as a school kid.
"This was the first time I ever saw a frog in real life," he says as he prepares to dig out a clump of honeysuckle. "I can remember, in addition to frogs, there were other wetland animals. It was just way different, and it's kind of dwindled down over the years."
George says it's exciting to be back in the park helping out.
Renee Gutberlet is another Mt. Healthy newcomer. She learned about the project from a Facebook post and decided to lend a hand. As a microbiologist, she knows the importance of wetlands.
"It is a source of freshwater. It will serve many, many animals and many, many plants. Not necessarily us, per se — you obviously aren't drinking that water — but it is a very, very fragile ecosystem," she explains. "It serves for not only native species that may overwinter here, but also for seasonal species. A lot of birds moving back and forth will harbor in wetlands for fresh food and fresh water."
Joe Roetting is another life-long Mt. Healthy resident and city council member. On this day, he's busy with a chainsaw.
"We used to be a suburban area, now we're more and more urban and we see the change of folks wanting to actually live in this area more and more. If we gain population, I think spaces like these are going to be even more important than folks' typical backyards," he says.
The problem is the city hasn't had the resources to do much with the park. That's turning around now that Aaron Horsley is here. He's working with Alex Kascak and others to plan and form a nonprofit to maintain the park.
They were recently awarded an $8,195 WeThrive grant for tools, equipment, native plant seeds and potentially new trees.
"We definitely want to get into the rest of the park where all the trails are. There's other areas of concern in there — a lot of the bodies of water are filled with a very aggressive, invasive cattail," Kascak says. "Overall, the goal is just to increase the native diversity of the area because the more native plants we have, the more other native wildlife that will show up and just make the park a lot more interesting and better for everyone."