A forest hides in plain sight

For a community to be labeled "resilient", its story arc has invariably followed a challenging path that’s far from a fairytale. Every story of a community’s struggles has its own unique aspects, but many earmarks are familiar: a decrease in population; surging crime. The roadblocks to prosperity are often imposed by those who lack a stake in its success and fail to consider the long-term impact of pivotal financial decisions and events.

The resilience that forms amid the crucible of adversity can also foment a more cohesive community that’s focused on solutions and eager to embrace innovative ideas. Throughout its evolution, the Mt. Airy community has benefitted from leaders, organizations, and everyday citizens invested in their neighborhood and collaborating to address community concerns. They view their community as more than the sum total of its average home resale value and the car counts on its main traffic artery.

This Resilient Neighborhoods series presents stories that focus on leaders, organizations, and everyday people who, in large and small ways, help a community regain a positive identity by collaborating to overcome its struggles.

Too often, Cincinnatians opine what they don’t have rather than appreciating amenities that enrich our quality of life. The Queen City may lack the seemingly infinite cultural offerings of Chicago or New York, but there are abundant amenities that enrich our quality of life which are far too often taken for granted. Locals recite cultural stalwarts such as Cincinnati’s Symphony, Ballet, Zoo, or Findlay Market, but a cursory check reveals they don’t frequent them beyond an annual milestone celebration.

Mt. Airy Forest is a similarly underappreciated local gem. Passing motorists are often unknowing of its splendor with little more than a vague notion that it is nearby.

Maintaining, enhancing, and promoting one of the nation’s largest city parks requires the efforts of a veritable regiment of dedicated staffers, volunteers, and community stakeholders. The park has grown nearly 10-fold from the original land grant that begat Mt. Airy Forest, and the passion and ambition that those involved in the Forest’s betterment has grown similarly.

Mt. Airy Forest was created in 1911 with a 168-acre purchase of land that had previously proven ill-suited to farming. The reforestation process began promptly, and the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps created a camp at Mt. Airy Forest from July 1935 to July 1937, and more than 51,000 man-days of labor building shelters, laying out hiking trails, and constructing other essential park amenities. Through subsequent land acquisitions, the Forest grew to 1,468 acres, and it ranks as one of the 100 largest parks nationwide within urban city limits.

Several stakeholders offer insights on Mt. Airy Forest’s impact on the community, the challenges it faces, and how volunteers with diverse interests find common ground in enhancing Mt. Airy Forest’s future.
Jason Barron has devoted his career to public service. An Ohio University grad, he began his career on the staff of former Mayor and State Senator Mark Mallory, and most recently served as CEO of Red Bike, a local bike-sharing service, before becoming director slightly more than a year ago.

He noted Cincinnati’s relatively compact footprint as an emphasis of why quality greenspaces are essential: “The Cincinnati city limits encompass 79 square miles, whereas Columbus spans 220 square miles, so in a high-density urban environment, greenspace is essential for a city’s quality of life.”

The Cincinnati Parks, which oversees more than 5,000 acres of city-wide parkland, managed a $23.6 operating budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which concluded last June 30. The Parks system’s western region was allocated $2.7 million.

One of the Mt. Airy Forest’s key attractions is Everybody’s Treehouse, a handicap-accessible rustic structure built in 2006 that provides a peaceful refuge in close proximity to Colerain Avenue. The structure resembles a Bag End dwelling from a J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but its splendid vista of the Forest canopy below evokes thoughts of the tree-elevated dwellings of Tolkien’s elves of Mirkwood.

Everybody's Treehouse at Mt. Airy Forest

The Forest’s 30-acre Arboretum showcases more than 3,000 species of trees, shrubs, and flowers within an environment that facilitates testing and observation that facilitates biodiversity and conservation. During an early October visit, most of the flora was still in bloom, and the babble of Meyer Lake flowing on the grounds provided an ideal backdrop for a peaceful, verdant walk.

The fauna contributed to the atmosphere as well. A flock of turkeys skulked around the arboretum’s periphery. After 10 minutes of an awkward approach, they finally started clucking fiercely and sprinted away to solitude beneath the forest canopy.

Disc golf has also become a significant draw to Mt. Airy Forest. A course was first installed in 1993; the sport’s popularity has waxed and waned over those three decades, but it appears to be in peak demand as Millennials and Gen Z look for ways to socialize, commune with nature and stay active. Competing amid such a lush forest background can be challenging (a flying disc can fly just as errantly as a poorly hit golf ball), but the atmosphere and excitement are more than worth the challenge.

Barron said that another way Cincinnati Parks is making Mt. Airy Forest’s lush plant life more accessible is through creating a digital catalogue, which will be posted on the Parks website and possibly elsewhere, with more than 5,000 plants, including 1,600 species of trees, with corresponding data about each type of flora. He credited Josh Hill for his precision and dedication in creating the catalogue, which will provide an additional touchpoint for educating the public about what Mt. Airy Forest offers as a thriving greenspace.

Superfans: The Volunteers

Christyl Johnson-Roberts has been a Cincinnati Parks employee for 18 years and has served as its volunteer coordinator for most of her tenure. She noted that during the 2022-23 fiscal year, 118 Mt. Airy Forest superfans volunteered a total of 2,066 hours. As with many public-use nonprofit entities, it would be far less desirable, and possibly even cease to exist, without volunteers donating their time.

Christyl Johnson-Roberts, Cincinnati Parks volunteer coordinatorJohnson-Roberts said that, because Mt. Airy Forest is not an old-growth forest with vegetation that grew completely organically, maintaining biodiverse, healthy plant life requires continuous care. Prior to Cincinnati Parks organizational changes, and the creation of the Mt. Airy Forest Advisory Council (MAFAC), many of those volunteers were “rogue”, or spontaneously decided without a larger plan to cut away weeds or clear a path. Also, before efforts were coordinated, affinity groups with divergent Forest priorities – hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers, and others – became territorial about advancing their organizations’ interests. However, through engagement and intentional efforts facilitated by MAFAC and Parks personnel, the groups better understand their common interests and work cooperatively.

Johnson-Roberts noted that Mt. Airy Forest’s key volunteer needs include assistance with conservation and land management, community programming and event promotion, horticulture assistance, and administrative support, such as serving on Cincinnati Parks Advisory Councils.

Cynthia Duval has an abiding passion for Cincinnati Parks. In addition to serving on MAFAC, she also participates in Burnet Woods’ Advisory Council. She’s been on Parks councils for six years and taken part in MAFAC for three years and currently serves as its lead organizer. She lives in Clifton near the UC campus but makes it a priority to visit Mt. Airy Forest at least once per week. She said, “it is such an escape from concrete and buildings, a return to what nature was intended to be for this area. It hides in plain sight.”

Parks staff and MAFAC, which includes a rotation of 20-30 volunteers, depend upon numerous volunteer organizations to assist with day-to-day Forest upkeep. Key supporting organizations include the Cincinnati Off Road Association (CORA), Mt. Airy Trail Runners, and the Mt. Airy West Conservation Group, among others. One of the most essential jobs might seem mundane but is central to preserving the Forest’s ecosystem.

“Cutting away honeysuckle is one of the most important things our volunteer team does,” Cynthia said. “It’s an extremely invasive species that, if left unchecked, chokes off and kills everything else growing. We could potentially have 27 miles of trails open for runners and cyclists, but invasive plants make several miles of these inaccessible. It’s an ongoing need.”

Events are another essential part of growing engagement with Mt. Airy Forest. And fall is an ideal time to enjoy its leaf-changing splendor. In early October, approximately 500 people ventured to Mt. Airy TrailFest, which included a number of hiking and biking excursions, including orienteering, geocaching, and a partnership with Luke 5 Adventures that provided physically challenged people an opportunity to enjoy Forest trails. On October 28, HalloWest will be staged at Mt. Airy Forest with disc golf, live music, food trucks, pumpkin decorating, and other seasonal events.

Going forward, one way Cynthia said to improve engagement with Mt. Airy Forest would be easier access for pedestrians and cyclists into Mt. Airy Forest. And, of course, more Mt. Airy residents to help cut away weeds and clean trails are always appreciated. Those interested in volunteering to support Mt. Airy Forest may apply here.

You can read earlier articles in the Resilient Neighborhoods – Mt. Airy series here.

The Resilient Neighborhoods series featuring Mt. Airy has been made possible with support from the City of Cincinnati and Homebase, the leading resource for community development, focused on sharing resources, funding, and expertise that helps transform neighborhoods and improve the quality of life for the residents of Greater Cincinnati.
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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.