Youngstown is one of many cities that often find themselves clumped together as “Rust Belt” cities, a phrase that conjures up images of overgrown lots, rusted chain link fences, and boarded up homes. But these images are deceptive, and paint a bleak picture of a city that has far more to offer than just a few stories about the good old days.

The city itself is nestled in the center of the Mahoning Valley, a region that is home to some of Ohio’s most picturesque waterways and forests, in sharp contrast to the billowy steel and manufacturing plants that dot the landscape. From Mill Creek Park to Vickers Nature Preserve, the Youngstown area offers many chances to get out and experience the natural lands of Ohio. Below is just a small sampling of the organizations working to protect the natural heritage of the Mahoning Valley.

 

Mill Creek Metro Parks

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The Mill Creek MetroParks is the organization in charge of managing and caring for a number of parks, preserves, and public lands throughout Mahoning Valley. Their largest park, the eponymous Mill Creek MetroParks, encompasses 2300 acres of land and creek stretching from the west side of the city to the southern extent of Boardman Township. Its trails provide residents and visitors with 15 miles of winding paths that traverse bridges, ponds, streams, and waterfalls. But perhaps its most striking feature is Lanterman’s Mill, a fully restored grain mill that uses the current of the creek to grind buckwheat, corn, and wheat, just as it did in ye olden days!

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The MetroParks are also involved with conservation efforts in a number of nature preserves throughout the county, including a 58-acre parcel of land in the middle fork of the Little Beaver Creek. The land was acquired last year through a partnership with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. The watershed itself is considered to be among the cleanest in Ohio by the Department of Natural Resources as it supports an abundance of different species and offers scenic trails through a combination of state forests, parks, and preserves.

 

Frackfree Mahoning Valley

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Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) is a constant anxiety among members of the public and environmental groups in the Mahoning Valley. The group called Frackfree Mahoning Valley has spent years opposing the drilling of oil & gas wells throughout the Youngstown area, citing the potential contamination of groundwater and the sharp uptick in earthquakes felt in the region since oil & gas companies started tapping the Valley.

The group is a supporter of the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights, a local ballot initiative that would ban the practice of fracking in Mahoning County through an amendment to the city’s charter. The Community Bill of Rights has been up for a vote in four different elections, and so far has not garnered enough support to pass. But this hasn’t deterred FMV from pressing the issue of environmental degradation caused by oil & gas activities, and will continue to push for the charter amendment into 2016.

 

Friends of the Mahoning River

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The Mahoning River has long been considered to be one of the dirtiest rivers in the state of Ohio, but since the decline of the steel industry the river has steadily improved. Helping it move along the road to recovery are the Friends of the Mahoning River, a local non-profit that works with volunteers to restore and cleanup the river.

Their work is multifaceted, with programs focusing on everything from education to demolishing dams along the river. On the former, the group reaches out to students with water table demonstrations of the different types of runoff that pollute the river and use it as an opportunity to teach them about what they can do to keep it clean. They also have a large following of volunteers who assist with cleaning up litter along the river as well as fundraising that helps keep all of the group’s programs up and running. For a group that started just three years ago, they’re efforts have had a remarkable impact on the river as just this past March the Ohio EPA lifted its ban on consuming fish from the river.

 

Trumbull Soil & Water Conservation District

The TWCD is a partnership between local, state, and federal governments that works to support and enhance the environment of Trumbull County, just north of Youngstown. Their primary responsibilities are to protect streams, lakes, and rivers within the county, which includes efforts to conserve the habitats within its watersheds. They also have a hand in protecting property owners from erosion and flooding, keeping ditches, culverts, and storm sewers clear for adequate drainage, and guiding land development in the region.

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The District also provides technical assistance for landowners who lease their property to loggers through the Ohio Timber Harvest Logging Program. Landowners & loggers can voluntarily request the TWCD’s assistance in planning logging activities in such a way that they minimize erosion, drainage issues, and minimize disruption of habitats.

Without these organizations, and others like them, the Mahoning Valley wouldn’t be as picturesque as it is today. Their work carries on a legacy of conservation that has always existed in the Valley, even if it may have been obscured by the thick smog of industry. But the Valley is coming back, with a river that is now healthy enough for recreation and entire woodlands that are protected from modern development.