Riverside Park: GECKOs look at park's future

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

A bench might go well right over there, overlooking what’s left of a dam in the creek. And the area in that flat section in the northeast could form a secluded grove of trees.

Slowly, ideas started to emerge about what can be done with Riverside Park to emphasize the unique quality of the property.geckos

Fifteen members of the high school GECKOs (Green Earth Club) met Oct. 24 at Riverside—also known as the Tourist Camp—to begin creating a plan for park use.

GECKO advisor Heather Whitehouse spoke with Scott Merillat, chair of the city’s public works committee, about devising a park plan. City council agreed at the Oct. 20 meeting to take a look at the group’s ideas and decide if the scheme is something to work into the city’s park plan.

Merillat has spoken in the past about the unique nature of Riverside Park. Wakefield and Stephenson parks are open grassy areas used for athletic events and playground activities. Large portions of Riverside are forested and contain areas of natural plant growth.

“Natural” is a word the GECKOs are considering. They’ve heard that, in the past, city council designated the park as a natural area. Now they’re wondering what they could do to further that idea.

A few students expressed an interest in researching the history of the park. They’ve heard stories that in past decades the park was a popular swimming spot. They would like to know more about how it’s been used in the past as they come up with their plan for the future.

Uncommon grounds

“You have a really unique area here,” said Kathy Melmoth of the Bean/Tiffin Watershed Coalition who has volunteered to help with the planning. “You already have the makings of a very good park.”

“The river flows along the entire edge of the park,” added Janet Kauffman, another conservancy member. “It’s the defining feature of this park.”

Kauffman said the Riverside Park area contains plants that don’t grow along Bean Creek farther north, even as close as Hudson. She said this is one of the few areas of the state that serves as a habitat for many plants.

“They don’t have this in Ann Arbor, they don’t have this in Detroit. People will come here to see it,” she said.

In fact, she added, she knows of several people who are aware of the park and have spent time at the area.

“Every time I come here I’m just amazed,” Melmoth said, again trying to impress upon the students how rich the area is in native plant life.

Bladdernut, wafer ash, wahoo, hackberry, carrion flower, cow parsnip, wild cucumber—the students were introduced to these plants on a quick tour through the adjoining woods. The difference was obvious between a traditional park environment and an area where the understory is allowed to flourish.

Whitehouse is wondering if the property could be made into a nature park that would be readily accessible to visitors.

“We’d like for more people to visit the park,” she said. “Once they see it as an attraction and a place of study, I think more people will utilize it.”

New ideas

Everybody involved in the project knows some outside help is essential.

“We’re all new at this,” Kauffman said. “It would be good to have someone look over our plan, if not come down and take a look.”

Two Eastern Michigan University graduate students studying eco-justice, Scott Whitehouse and Elizabeth Smith, are also volunteering time with the project, and they know of some contacts in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area who might serve as consultants.

The Natural Area Preservation program of the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Department was mentioned, along with the Nature Conservancy.

“It’s exciting to see how many people are interested,” Smith said, but she’s hoping for a deeper involvement.

“I want students to ask themselves, ‘Why is this project important to me and my community?’”

She’s hoping they make a connection between themselves and their ecosystem.

Whitehouse is looking for the park prot to spark an interest and passion in the students, something that will last long after they leave high school.

The students toured the park and added some ideas to a map of the area. A second meeting will be scheduled before sitting down with city representatives to collect their opinions.

A final plan could be ready for presentation to city council before spring.

Riverside's unique habitat

What makes the Riverside Park area unique?

It's the river floodplain and bottomland hardwood forest plant communities of southern Michigan that give this area its singular appearance.

Periodic flooding, siltation and nutrient-rich soils all contribute to plant growth here, in addition to climatic conditions. The climate is a little warmer and more humid in the summer than the upland areas, and spring temperatures are a little cooler.

Many plants that are common in states to the south appear only in these bottomlands of southern Michigan, and only along the rivers and streams. This leads to a rich, complex mix of plants in areas such as Riverside Park.

Trees include redbud (from which Bean Creek got its name), honeylocust, sycamore, northern hackberry, wafer ash or hop tree (actually a member of the family that includes citrus trees), bladdernut and pawpaw.

The interaction and interdependence between the plant and animal life makes up the ecology of an area. Along the Bean, for example, the giant swallowtail butterfly larva can be found dining on the wafer ash. The zebra swallowtail prefers the pawpaw over other leaves.

Hack-berry trees are sole sources of food for the American snout butterfly, the tawny emperor and the hackberry emperor—although each eat at different stages of leaf development to avoid competition. The question mark butterfly also dines on the tree.

The honeylocust provides food for the silver spot skipper.

    –Nov. 5, 2003

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