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Dysart Woods

In the middle of an environmental sacrifice zone, the last remnant of the primeval Ohio forest hangs on.

By Kevin E. O’Donnell

Kevin O'Donnell poses at the sign for the Ohio University Dysart Woods Laboratory in Belmont County, Ohio. (Photo by Kevin O'Donnell.)
Kevin O'Donnell poses at the sign for the Ohio University Dysart Woods Laboratory in Belmont County, Ohio. (Photo by Kevin O'Donnell.)

About Dysart Woods:

Affiliation: Ohio University. In 2023, ownership and management is in the process of being transferred to Captina Conservancy, a non-profit land trust based in Barnesville, Belmont County, Ohio. Sale is pending as of July 2023.

Location: Smith Township, Belmont County. 10 miles south of OU's Eastern Campus in St. Clairsville. Two hours and 134 miles by car from OU's main campus in Athens. 39.988233, -80.990356.

Size: Fifty-five acres of old-growth forest on a more than 400-acre tract that includes some open fields and mostly second-growth woods.

Trail: A 1.7-mile loop. Mostly easy. Three bridges, over seeps and small creeks, may be damaged and not passable.

Hiking access: Open to the public every day, dawn to dusk. Pets must be leashed. Trailhead parking for 8 to10 vehicles.

Region: Southeast Ohio. Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau. Upper Ohio River valley. Headwaters of the Bend Fork subwatershed of the Captina Creek watershed. Captina Creek joins the Ohio River at Powhatan Point.

Forest type: Old-growth mixed mesophytic, with an abundance of white oak. Dominant trees are beech, sugar maple, and white oak.

Disturbance history: The 55-acre old-growth section has been undisturbed on the surface. However, in 2010, a "room and pillar" coal mine was dug 500 feet beneath the tract. The mine changed the hydrology and is believed to have damaged many old trees.

Conservation status: An easement on the deed prevents the trees from being cut on the surface. Ohio Valley Coal Company owns the coal rights beneath. Ohio University retains the oil and gas rights, and those will be transferred to the conservancy when the land is transferred.

Contact: Captina Conservancy,

Two men inspect a tree in Dysart Woods. (Photo courtesy of Captina Conservancy.)
Two men inspect a tree in Dysart Woods. (Photo courtesy of Captina Conservancy.)

In December 2021, on the morning of the winter solstice, I drove 50 miles up Ohio State Route 7 following the northern bank of the Ohio River, La Belle Riviere, to approach the site of Dysart Woods in Belmont County, in southeastern Ohio. The day was clear and still. The sun hung golden and glaring in the southeast, reflecting off the river. My 7-year-old daughter, Emily, rode with me. We were driving from East Tennessee to visit family in Northeast Ohio and we took this side trip to walk in the woods.

These woods are on the unglaciated Allegheny plateau. The ice sheets never reached down to the Ohio River here (though farther downstream, the great river itself is the glaciers’ terminal moraine). Since it was never smoothed out by glaciers, the terrain is rugged: sharp hills rise 200 feet from the river, lending the landscape a mysterious and haunting quality that can border on claustrophobic when you get away from the big river and venture up one of the roads that follow its tributaries.

This is the center of the old Ohio Country of pioneer lore. Eighty miles upriver is Pittsburgh, the former site of old Fort Duquesne, the French fort at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which the British replaced with Fort Pitt after they took the area from the French in the decade before the American Revolution. This is the old Northwest, likely the center of the Shawnee homeland in the time before European contact. By the 18th century, European empires were fighting over it, regarding the region as a prize in a global conflict. The Seven Years’ War — which Winston Churchill later called “the first world war” — started in this region, with skirmishes in the 1750s between the British and the French, each fighting alongside their respective Native American allies.

Dysart Woods may be the last remnant of uncut trees in a region that was almost entirely covered in old growth deciduous forest less than 250 years ago.

One of the early white settlers, John S. Williams, in 1843, published an account of his childhood. In "Our Cabin; or Life in the Woods," Williams writes about the spring of 1800, when his father moved his family from “Carolina” to a spot about six miles northeast of St. Clairsville, which is ten miles by road from what is now Dysart Woods, in Belmont County:

Emigrants poured into Ohio from different parts, cabins were put up in every direction, and women, children and goods tumbled into them. The tide of emigration flowed like water through a breach in a mill dam. Everything was bustle and confusion, and all worked that could work.

Williams goes on to describe the trees that stood over the cabin his family had set in the middle of the wilderness:

We had never seen a dangerous looking tree near a dwelling, but here we were surrounded by the tall giants of the forest, waving their boughs and uniting their brows over us, as if in defiance of our disturbing their repose, and usurping their long and uncontested pre-emption rights.

Here Williams expresses the pioneer disposition toward large, old trees: Those trees are threatening. They need to be cut down. And the sooner the better.

his photograph captures the massive base of an old-growth-forest tree standing sentinel among younger inhabitants of Dysart Woods. (Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.)
This photograph captures the massive base of an old-growth-forest tree standing sentinel among younger inhabitants of Dysart Woods. (Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.)

So cut the pioneers did. It is estimated that, before white settlement, “... as much as 95% of what is now the state of Ohio was once covered with forest and punctuated by prairies and large openings created by tornadoes,” according to an article by Brian C. McCarthy, Christine J. Small and Darrin L. Rubino published in the journal ScienceDirect. Environmental historians debate the question of what effects native peoples had on the Ohio woodlands, before the era of white settlement. There is some evidence for widespread clearing and cultivation around rivers and the use of fire to drive game from the woods. Yet no one disputes that the Ohio country was mainly composed of vast woodlands. After white pioneers moved in, deforestation advanced rapidly.

Whites cleared land for settlement and for agriculture. They used a combination of fire and girdling. (Girdling is a technique whereby the bark is removed in a strip around the full circumference of a tree. That severs the tree's vascular system, and by the next season the tree should be dead and easier to cut down.) By about the mid-1800s, as the industrial age advanced, large-scale logging and charcoal production were commonplace, and the rate of deforestation accelerated. By the turn of the 20th century, most of the Ohio country forest was gone.

Dysart is one of only two unlogged tracts remaining on the unglaciated portion of the Allegheny plateau. (The other is Parkinson Forest, 50 miles across the river at Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. It will be featured in another chapter in a forthcoming book, alongside the article you are now reading.) The Dysart Woods official website — which was maintained by the Department of Plant Biology at Ohio University in Athens before the University agreed to transfer the property to Captina Conservancy — in 2022 called the 55 acres of Dysart Woods “the largest known remnant of the original forest of southeastern Ohio.” The Old Growth Forest Network page dedicated to Dysart Woods at goes further:

This is the only known … remnant of the Mixed Mesophytic Forest type located in Ohio, and one of only several in the entire central Appalachians.

So these 55 acres represent the last of the region’s primeval forest. Some of the trees were mature when Chief Logan hunted in this same forest in the days of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Deep disturbance

The forest has not been violated on the surface, but in 2010 it was disturbed from underneath. Ohio University owned the property with a deed that separates mineral rights from surface rights. The university did not own the mineral rights. Fourteen years ago, after a complicated series of legal actions, the state permitted the Ohio Valley Coal Company to mine under the forest. The company dug a room-and-pillar coal mine 500 feet beneath the woods. This type of mining leaves “pillars” of coal to hold up the roof of the mine. This is as opposed to longwall mining, which removes all the coal and allows the roof to collapse into the void left behind. The room-and-pillar technique was Ohio Valley Coal’s concession to people who wanted to see the woods preserved. The idea was that the pillars would prevent the surface of the woods from subsiding.

A road carves through Ohio's Dysart Woods, which may be the last remnant of uncut trees in a region that was almost entirely covered in old growth deciduous forest less than 250 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Captina Conservancy.)
A road carves through Ohio's Dysart Woods, which may be the last remnant of uncut trees in a region that was almost entirely covered in old growth deciduous forest less than 250 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Captina Conservancy.)

As far as I was able to see when I visited, there has not been any obvious subsidence. Yet the woods have been dramatically damaged. Brian McCarthy is a professor of forest ecology at Ohio University. He is also a senior associate dean for research in the College of Arts and Sciences. His research in Dysart Woods includes a tree survey a few years before the mine was dug. I talked to McCarthy on the phone a few weeks after my visit to the woods. He said that within one year following the mining, half of the old growth trees died. Of those that died, the oldest that McCarthy was able to obtain a “cookie” from was 441 years old. (In order to saw out that cookie, he had to order a special 38” chainsaw bar.)

The trees died because the mine changed the hydrology of the area. In another small concession to conservationists, Ohio Valley Coal agreed to pay for a before-and-after study of the effects of mining on the hydrology in Dysart Woods. Published in 2019 in “Mine Water and the Environment: Journal of the International Mine Water Association,” the study concludes as follows:

Results of transient data analyses revealed higher permeability and hydraulic conductivity after mining and decreased storage capacity in the upper groundwater system.

In other words, if you dig a big hole, water will run down into it. “Yep, water flows down,” McCarthy said. “Gravity is an amazing thing.”

McCarthy documented the tree deaths and took the documentation to legal counsel in the faint hope of getting some kind of accountability from the coal company. But all of the attorneys that he talked to along the way said the same thing: Correlation is not causation. In other words: you cannot prove that the tree deaths were caused by the mine just because they happened after the mine. It could be argued that a cohort of trees were simply ready to die.

Shovels and coal

To call this region an environmental sacrifice zone might seem extreme. Perhaps that term should be reserved for more dramatic examples of extraction, such as the mountaintop removal counties of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southwest Virginia? But certainly this place has a tradition of extreme fossil fuel extraction, and likewise a culture of environmental destruction.

A few miles north of Dysart Woods, just north of I-70, which runs east and west through Belmont County, you can see on most maps the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area, which is 18,000 acres, covering the northwest corner of the county. The green color on the map is deceiving. As a pamphlet produced by the Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife states:

Over the last 70 years, approximately 80 percent of the acreage that comprises Egypt Valley Wildlife Area has been subject to surface mining. The last active mine was completed in 1998.

In other words, what used to be called the Egypt Valley has been almost entirely stripped for coal. Belmont County is the center of Ohio's coal country. For 200 years, people have mined Ohio brown coal in this area — lignite: high-sulfur, high-CO2 coal, compressed peat from the bottom of an ancient sea whose shore lapped roughly along the contours of this part of what is now the Ohio River.

In the 1960s, the Egypt Valley was the home of the so-called GEM of Egypt. GEM stands for Giant Earth Mover. In 1968, the GEM was “the world’s largest shovel,” a phrase famously used in the late John Prine’s 1971 song, “Paradise.” Prine’s song is about a town in Kentucky that, in the mid-20th century, was strip mined and replaced with the TVA’s Paradise Fossil Plant.

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel.

And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land.

Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken.

Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

Prine was writing about Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, the home of his parents and grandparents in the southwestern part of the Commonwealth. But the lyrics apply just as well to Belmont County, Ohio.

A coal company power shovel is at work strip mining land above Interstate 70 near Belmont County's Morristown, Ohio, in 1974. (Photo by Erik Calonius, courtesy of National Archives.)
A coal company power shovel is at work strip mining land above Interstate 70 near Belmont County's Morristown, Ohio, in 1974. (Photo by Erik Calonius, courtesy of National Archives.)

Dysart Woods is south of the strip-mined area in Egypt Valley. In this part of the county, the coal is deeper underground. As my daughter and I drive along the Ohio River, approaching this area from the southwest, on Ohio Route 7, we pass visible manifestations of the hold that fossil fuels have on the region. The mid-morning solstice sun from the south reveals that everything is covered in a thin layer of gray dust. I'm guessing that’s from trucks lumbering down OH 7, with its freeze-and-thaw cracks and its gravel-edged shoulders. We pass riverfront communities that look almost like ghost towns: Sardis, Duffy, Hannibal, Clarington. Every half mile or so, there’s a gravel-covered spot between the road and the river where old trucks are parked that seem to have some relation to fossil fuels. Truck trailers in various stages of decay, with industrial equipment sitting in the back of them. Tanker-looking things. Plus, lots of mysterious piping piled on gravel plots, edged in rogue vegetation, which is browned out now for the winter.

An enormous coal barge — or what appears rather to be six barges tied together — plies the river heading south. Between us and the river are trailer homes with inflatable Santas swaying in front of them.

In this part of the Ohio River Valley, in the 1970s, a number of coal-fired power plants were built and are still operated. Below St. Mary’s, Ohio, near the start of our drive, we see Pleasants Power Station across the river near Belmont, West Virginia. The plant began operations in 1979. It has two 1,000-foot chimneys, that loom impressively as you approach from the southwest on the Ohio side of the river. Equally impressive are the two 429-foot concrete cooling towers. Their graceful shape is a hyperbolic paraboloid that helps to generate a natural upward draft. The shape leads people to mistakenly think that this is a nuclear power plant because nuke-plant cooling towers often employ this same shape.

The shape is very difficult to construct in concrete. In April of 1972, tower No. 2 at Pleasants Power Station had reached a height of 166 feet under construction when an elaborate network of scaffolding collapsed. The accident killed all 51 construction workers who were on the scaffolding. The incident is known as the Willow Island Disaster. A Wikipedia article on the disaster lists the 51 victims’ names along with their hometowns. All are from the surrounding counties. In the year 2000, a local high school student’s social studies project on the disaster resulted in his organizing a memorial that now sits on the river above the plant. The student, Anthony Lauer, a grandson of one of the victims, told a reporter that he was surprised to learn about the disaster because no one in his family ever talked about it when he was younger.

Almost 50 miles into the drive up river, just below Powhatan Point, you can see, across the river in Moundsville, West Virginia, the 1206-foot chimney at Mitchell Power Plant. When the smokestack was built in 1971, it was among the tallest freestanding structures in the world. This was back when the philosophy was, as the old saying went, “dilution is the solution to pollution.” In the 1960s and ’70s, Ohio valley coal plant designers thought they were doing the right thing by building smokestacks higher than 1,000 feet. That way, they could burn that local, high-sulfur brown coal and send the resulting smoke up and away into the prevailing winds that blew eastward. It wasn't until the 1980s that scientists fully understood that these emissions were causing acid rain, leading to the acidification of lakes in New York and Vermont, among other environmental effects.

Shifting winds

In 1990, the U.S. Congress, in a bipartisan vote, passed several amendments to the Clean Air Act. These were designed specifically to reduce acid rain by reducing sulfur dioxide emissions. One effect of this change was to reduce demand for Ohio’s high-sulfur coal. During the following decade, another challenge to Ohio coal emerged: In the early 2000s, new techniques for extracting natural gas from shale were developed. And southeast Ohio, in addition to sitting atop generous coal beds, sits above a portion of the Marcellus shale formation, which is older than the coal and lies deep beneath it. This has been the basis for a boom in natural gas production during the past decade or more.

As a result, Belmont County has become the heart of “Frackalachia.” Now the landscape around Dysart Woods is dotted with fracking well pads. Zooming in on Google Earth reveals some of the well pads mapped there. Around Dysart Woods is the Mohawk Warrior Pad, the EQT Thrasher Pad, the EQT Walking Tall Pad, The Iron Warrior, etc.

The well pads are part of a vast natural gas infrastructure that continues to be developed across this part of Ohio. Industry proponents envision turning this part of the Ohio River valley into a petrochemicals and plastics hub. Critics call it “The New Cancer Alley.” The original Cancer Alley reference has been applied to an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where over 150 petrochemicals production and refinery facilities are located. Cancer rates there are above average, and the region is widely regarded as a sacrifice zone. Now Shell Oil is moving production to the Ohio River. The company, in late 2022, began operating the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex, 75 miles upriver from Belmont County in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

That huge complex is an ethane cracker, a plastics production facility that turns natural gas liquids, which are byproducts of fracking from the Marcellus shale, into the precursor for plastics. (An ethane cracker is sometimes confusingly called an ethylene cracker. Ethane is a natural gas liquid. The cracker plant heats the ethane at high temperatures to “crack” the molecule, which converts it into ethylene, a simpler molecule which is the building block for plastics. Ethane is the feedstock. Ethylene is the product.) The Beaver County ethane cracker is slated to produce 1.6 million tons of raw plastics per year.

A February 2019 Inside Climate News article titled “Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia?” contains an infographic that illustrates the production chain that moves from natural gas liquid, at the wellhead, to ethylene produced by the cracker. The caption on the graphic explains the context:

Political leaders see petrochemical and plastics manufacturing as the next big thing for the Appalachian basin after the fracking boom of the last decade. Making plastic requires a heavily industrialized process and network of gas wells, storage and pipelines. The Department of Energy calls this the “ethane value chain.”

The network of facilities is already being built all over southeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania: not only well pads, but also pipelines, processing plants and fractionators (which separate the natural gas liquids), and storage facilities.

The bet that the fossil fuels industry is making is that, even as people move away from fossil fuels for energy, the demand for plastics will continue to sustain the industry. As Andrew Brown, an executive for Shell, told the San Antonio Express-News in 2018: “Unlike refining, and ultimately unlike oil, which will see a moment when the growth will stop, we actually don't anticipate that with petrochemicals.”

A pair of giant trees hold their ground in Dysart Woods. (Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.)
A pair of giant trees hold their ground in Dysart Woods. (Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.)

The jury is still out on whether this is a good bet for the industry. Recently, PTT Global Chemical America, a Thai state-owned oil and gas company, has proposed another ethane cracker plant, to be sited at Dilles Bottom, a few miles upriver from Powhatan Point, and 15 miles from Dysart Woods, on the Ohio side of the river, across from Moundsville, West Virginia. The property is where the former FirstEnergy R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant once stood. That plant was shut down by clean air enforcement in 2011. PTT seems to be moving forward with its plan. As of 2022 the company had acquired more than 500 acres and demolished 14 homes at the site. Yet there are reports that the project’s financing is in danger. A financial partner from Korea has pulled out of the deal. And at least three additional crackers that have been proposed for this part of Ohio appear to be on hold.

An April 2022 feature article in Yale Environment 360, a respected online magazine for environmental journalism, summarizes the state of affairs for petrochemical companies in the region, in a blurb beneath the article’s headline:

The rise of fracking in Appalachia has fed visions of turning the Ohio River Valley into a petrochemical and plastics hub. But overproduction of plastic, opposition to natural gas pipelines, and public concern about rampant plastic waste are upending those plans.

It is difficult to predict how the Russian war in Ukraine, and the resulting increased demand in Europe for natural gas from non-Russian sources, will affect the situation. But for now, as the author of the Yale Environment 360 article writes, “The Ohio River Valley is wrestling with whether to tie its fortunes to another toxic, boom-and-bust industry.”

Health implications

Is the fracking boom, and now the potential petrochemicals buildout, good for southeastern Ohio? At the end of 2021, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Ohio’s frack counties had experienced economic gains, under the headline, “Natural gas, oil production brings economic growth to eastern Ohio.”

The article reports that, in terms of GDP, the economy had increased that year, in the fracking counties of southeastern Ohio. However, in 2022 the Ohio River Valley Institute reported that “Belmont County, Ohio’s largest gas-producing county and fifth-fastest growing economy, lost 8% of its jobs last year, the worst employment drop in the state.” What seems to be happening is that somebody is making money, but not the people who live in Belmont County. The fracking industry requires capital investments and brings in outside workers, often for temporary jobs, which does not help keep the money in the region.

In the meantime, the fracking boom has been harming the health of southeastern Ohio residents. A study published in early 2022 in the journal Nature Sustainability found that, between 2004 and 2016, in the Appalachian basin, shale gas development created a regional economic boost of $21 billion dollars. That amount was outweighed in economic terms by the $23 billion in estimated cost related to the 1,200 to 4,600 premature deaths which that study linked to air pollution from the industry. And that’s before the climate impacts of leaking methane and CO2 emissions are factored in. The numbers in the study are all estimates, with wide margins of error, but fracking is widely considered to have negative effects on public health.

In late 2019, a few months before the outbreak of the global COVID 19 pandemic, National Public Radio visited Belmont County to report on a national phenomenon: the increase in adult “deaths of despair.” In certain parts of America, people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have been dying at notably higher rates from suicide and from chronic, preventable causes such as drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, smoking and obesity. The numbers are especially bad in Belmont County. In an article titled, “Drug Overdoses Contribute to Rise in Midlife Mortality in Ohio River Valley,” NPR reporter Melissa Block wrote:

Over the years, the Ohio River Valley has seen the bottom fall out of the coal and steel industries — the engines that built these towns and that used to employ tens of thousands of workers.

“It’s kind of like a butterfly effect,” says Daniel Grady, public health emergency preparedness coordinator with the Belmont County Health Department. “People lose their jobs. They lose their health insurance, so that means preventative care takes a hit. And then, just the depression and everything that goes along with losing a job. Everything spreads out from something like that.”

Experiencing the woods

At the edge of a parking lot at the center of the Dysart Woods property, a trifold pamphlet prepared by Ohio University is under plexiglass at a kiosk. Titled, “Dysart Woods: Land of Giants, the pamphlet for a self-guided walk includes a trail map showing that the trail is divided into two sections: A red trail and a blue trail. The map includes six numbered points on each colored trail. These numbers correspond to paragraphs on the pamphlet, each of which discusses a numbered site. I snap pictures of the pamphlet so that my daughter and I can read the text on the trail. Then we follow the red trail, dropping out of the parking lot to the north, into a creek basin.

Emily O'Donnell reaches her arms around a tree in Dysart Woods during a visit to the forest in December 2021. (Photo by Kevin O'Donnell.)
Emily O'Donnell reaches her arms around a tree in Dysart Woods during a visit to the forest in December 2021. (Photo by Kevin O'Donnell.)

Emily is glad to be out of the car and runs ahead on the trail. The red section of the trail is less than a mile long. The woods are open and bright on this winter day. The diverse textures of tree barks stand out in the slanted sunlight coming from the south. Beeches, oaks, tulip poplars all display their distinct barks. As we descend, I notice a number of large white oaks lying on the ground, creating the classic “pit and mound” topography, when their root balls pull up and leave holes, which is one indicator of an old-growth ecosystem. I will not find out until I talk to McCarthy, a few weeks later, that the coal mine 500 feet beneath the surface has killed half of the old-growth trees. But I do recall noticing as I walked that the canopy seemed a bit thin, even considering that it was wintertime. Nevertheless, the place seems magical, in part because of the golden quality of the solstice light, and the stillness and the mildness of the day, added to the fact that Emily and I are both in a holiday mood, excited to see family members we haven’t seen in months. So we stop here on this wooded hillside, and for a moment we just breathe it in.

Halfway through the route, the trail crosses twice over a small creek in a shallow ravine, before it loops back up to the road. Where it crosses, there are two small wooden footbridges. Both have been smashed by windfall, large branches that have fallen from the trees above. McCarthy later told me that an Amish man in Belmont County had offered to repair these two bridges, and a third bridge over on the blue trail, all for a total of $1,000. The man had said he would use a horse to bring in tools and materials. Apparently in line with Anabaptist tradition, the Amish man would not sign any contracts required by the university for construction projects. McCarthy said another contractor had quoted a price for replacing one of the bridges at $30,000. The bridges were still out when Emily and I visited in December 2021.

Cost of care

It turns out that the broken bridges are only one of many logistical and financial problems that Ohio University was facing in trying to maintain these woods as a place for the public. We had passed the caretaker house as we entered the property. The house was built about 1905 and has not been occupied since June 2021. McCarthy said that for most of the last century, caretaker families who occupied the house cared about the property and the woods and kept the facilities maintained. More recent caretakers moving in and out had less of an emotional connection to the property, which now sits empty.

Ohio University’s real estate board recently bacame involved in considering what needed to be done with the property. The outlook was not optimistic. To bring the house up to standards that would allow them to insure and rent the property would cost approximately half a million dollars. This in an area where a comparable house would sell for less than one third of that amount.

The underlying problem is that the woods are two hours from OU’s main campus. So it’s hard to integrate the property into university activities. The university itself just doesn’t get much use out of the woods. “A top administrator asked me if we use the woods enough to justify the expenditure,” McCarthy said. “And to be honest, what I’ve got to show for the last 20 years is pretty minimal. I have two master’s theses, one dissertation, three publications, for 20 years. It’s not enough to justify a half a million dollars.”

During the 1960s and ’70s, there was a trend among universities toward acquiring field laboratories for experiential education. “Money’s not flush like it was 20 or 30 years ago,” McCarthy said. “A lot of universities are struggling, ours included.” For these reasons, in October 2021, two months before I visited the woods, the OU Board of Trustees approved a “portfolio reduction strategy.” As part of that strategy, Ohio University published a list of surplus property that it was putting up for sale. The list included Dysart Woods.

Continuing conservation

A parking sign at Dysart Woods is in need of repair. (Photo by Kevin O'Donnell)
A parking sign at Dysart Woods is in need of repair. (Photo by Kevin O'Donnell.)

In June of 2023, Ellie Ewing, the Executive Director of Captina Conservancy, told me that the morning after the surplus property list was published, her email inbox was lit up with messages from friends who were alarmed about the announcement. “You’ve got to do something,” seemed to be the general consensus. Thus was set into motion a plan to transfer the ownership and management of the property to the Conservancy.

Captina Creek, the creek that Emily and I followed as we drove along State Route 148 up into Belmont County from the Ohio River, is a 35-mile creek that runs through the county. Considering how beset the area is with oil, gas and coal operations, one would not think of this creek as pristine. What was until recently one of the highest-producing coal mines in the country is literally on the banks of Captina Creek. The Century Mine, located 10 miles south of Dysart Woods, was producing 5 million tons of coal per year before it ceased operations in April of 2022. The waste pile from that mine is the highest point in Belmont County. Yet Captina Creek is one of the few waterways in Ohio that still have healthy populations of hellbender salamanders. And, as far as Ewing knows, it is the only place in Ohio where juvenile hellbenders have been found in the last decade. Ewing said she actually got to hold a hellbender last fall while working with a permitted researcher at Captina Creek. “Yes, they are as slimy as they look,” she said. “And they’re strong. Surprisingly strong.”

The other Ohio streams with hellbenders have only old salamanders. Those are still breeding, but the streams have no juveniles. Something is happening between the time the eggs hatch and the time when they would normally mature on their own.

Hellbenders generally don't tolerate pollution very well. They require clean water. In fact, the presence of hellbenders is considered an indicator of clean water. So how is it that Captina Creek is clean enough for the salamanders? Ewing said the creek does, indeed, experience occasional high spikes of total dissolved solids. But overall, the water quality is good. It turns out that forest cover in the stream corridor is a crucial contributor to its water quality, and likewise for hellbender populations. When I talked to her in June, Ewing had the day before received a press release about a study by researchers at Virginia Tech showing a high correlation between forest cover and hellbenders’ reproductive success. Ewing said that the Captina watershed has 75% forest cover.

In 2022, Ewing and her board obtained a grant from the Clean Ohio Green Space Conservation Fund administered by the Ohio Public Works Commission. As with many conservation land deals, the agreement that OU and the conservancy eventually put together has a lot of moving parts, and it will take some time before all of the land transfers are completed: OU will donate 189 acres of the tract — including the part that contains 55 acres of old growth — to Captina Conservancy. OU will likewise sell the remaining 242 acres to the conservancy, which will use the Clean Ohio grant money to make the purchase. OU has also agreed to then donate 90% of that purchase price back to the conservancy. That money will then be put into a fund for the care and maintenance of Dysart Woods. The other 10% of the money will be used by OU to fund research at the site. Meanwhile, OU will separately sell the homestead — the old caretaker house and grounds — and about 20 acres of tillable land, with those acres restricted from use except for agriculture or return to nature.

A version of this essay will appear as a chapter in a forthcoming book: Campus Groves: Rambles in College Forests in the Eastern U. S., by Kevin O'Donnell and Scott Honeycutt, forthcoming from University of Georgia Press.

Kevin O’Donnell is a professor in the Department of Literature and Language, and Director of the Environmental Studies minor in the Department of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University.


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