The Secret Lives of Parks

Hope Along the Cuyahoga

Episode Summary

The Cuyahoga River was once severely polluted and notorious for catching fire, inspiring the first Earth Day. Now, 53 years later, the river is revitalized, and advocacy is continuing to help the region thrive.

Episode Notes

The Cuyahoga River was once a burning symbol of pollution and neglect — then the public demanded action to protect it. Decades of work have transformed the river into a thriving recreational destination for millions of visitors.

Today, this dedication continues with major restoration projects that are revitalizing waterways, bringing back wildlife and improving the park and the Great Lakes region. Want a dose of optimism this Earth Day? We’ve got you covered.

In this episode, host Jennifer Errick speaks with Plant Ecologist Chris Davis at Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Great Lakes Senior Program Manager Kira Davis with the National Parks Conservation Association on how funding from a dedicated initiative has supported vital restoration work in the Cuyahoga River watershed as well as many other improvement projects in the Great Lakes region.

This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Alison Heis, Linda Coutant and Vanessa Pius.

Special thanks to Terrance Liggins for capturing the sounds of Stanford Run and other special places at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer.

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at

Learn more about Cuyahoga Valley National Park at and see their calendar of upcoming volunteer events at

Learn more about projects the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is making possible throughout the Great Lakes region.

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. 

Learn more and join us at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 18
Hope Along the Cuyahoga

Jennifer Errick: The Cuyahoga River was once a burning symbol of pollution and neglect, then the public demanded action to protect it. Decades of work have transformed the river into a thriving recreational destination for millions of visitors. Today this dedication continues with major restoration projects that are revitalizing waterways, bringing back wildlife, and making a major difference in the park. Want a dose of optimism this Earth Day? We've got you covered. I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.

It can be difficult even for park lovers and outdoor enthusiasts to contemplate the significance of Earth Day. On a planet where natural disasters are intensifying, where communities are fighting to survive against rising seas, where wayward insects are taking down whole forests. Is a 53-year-old holiday to honor the environment still relevant, and can it be a time for celebration? 

In northeast Ohio, one river that was so famously polluted, it sparked the creation of the modern environmental movement, is now an ongoing success story, A place where conservationists, volunteers and advocates continue to make measurable improvements with far-reaching effects. For some people in this highly developed part of the Midwest, where nature has long had to coexist with steel mills, rubber plants, sewage, and other sources of pollution, the story is a source of hope and even optimism.

The Cuyahoga River is most famous for catching fire in 1969, as it had caught fire at least 10 times before. A spark from a train on a nearby railroad likely ignited a buildup of oil and debris floating on the water. Pollution that had accumulated from decades of toxic discharge from local industries. 

National media seized on the story, which happened just six months after a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara had blackened Southern California beaches and killed countless birds and marine animals. Another galvanizing event that we talked about more deeply in episode 12 of the podcast. People were outraged and a photo of an older blaze on the Cuyahoga capturing massive black plumes of smoke filling the sky made the cover of Time magazine, fueling public anger. 

The following year, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson founded the first Earth Day and millions of people, many of them students, participated in demonstrations across the country. Congress created bedrock conservation agencies and laws including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and many others.

Chris Davis: There's been a lot of change here since this park was established in 1974. Literally that was five years after the Cuyahoga River for the last time had burned, literally caught fire. There are sections of the river back at that time, there was no life, I mean, there was no oxygen.

Jennifer Errick: That's Chris Davis, a plant ecologist who has worked at Cuyahoga Valley National Park since 2009.

Chris Davis: And so over those intervening 50-ish years, we have made a huge turnaround in this section where now again, some of these creatures are kind of common now, but in the day they were extinct in this area — beavers, otters, bald eagles. There were no eagles. Great blue herons — now we have heron rookeries. We've done a good job of managing the land around the river. The cities adjacent to us and the communities have done a lot, too, to address the runoff and stormwater pollution and sewage discharges. So collectively, including a lot of federal laws enacted back in the 1970-ish era, done a good job to really transform this area.

Jennifer Errick: Cuyahoga Valley National Park preserves about 20 miles of the hundred-mile river between Cleveland and Akron. The section that famously caught fire in 1969 is several miles north of the park boundary, closer to Lake Erie and the Port of Cleveland. Though laws now reduce the amount of waste in the watershed, the Cuyahoga remains a working river, carrying 13 million tons of cargo each year, and the greater Cleveland-Akron metropolitan region is home to more than 3 million people. 

According to Davis, this proximity to urban areas was an important consideration in the creation of the park.

Chris Davis: Cuyahoga Valley National Park is kind of unusual even within the National Park System, and we were part of a national parks movement in the 1970s, called Parks to the People. Instead of just having these big, isolated parks and these beautiful scenic areas out west that people had to drive sometimes days and days to get to. And then in the '70s we're like, "Hey, we just need to have some of these more natural areas and cultural areas close to where people actually live." And we were one of those parks created between the cities of Akron and Cleveland to just provide a local site where local people, instead of driving all the way across the country, could just go to get out into nature.

Jennifer Errick: The result is that you can turn directly off the interstate and find yourself among miles of hiking and biking trails, several large stunning waterfalls, a plateau with beautiful rock ledge formations and a surprising number of trees.

Chris Davis: We have some big blocks of forest here, I guess is a very developed part of Northeast Ohio, but we have some patches that are a thousand acres or more that's really unusual here, again, out west, even down south, totally like a postage stamp. But here, that's a cool little patch of forest.

Jennifer Errick: But being surrounded by so much development can create challenges for the ecology of the park. Years before Davis began working at Cuyahoga Valley, park staff had identified a priority problem at one of the creeks that feeds the Cuyahoga River, a waterway known as Stanford Run, located right in the middle of the park.

Chris Davis: Stanford Run is a creek that starts outside of park boundaries. We do manage a lot of the land within the park boundaries around the creek. Typical for most of our little creeks that come into the Cuyahoga River in this area, most of what's going on is outside of the park. So, when it rains, those raindrops aren't falling on, like, old growth forests like they might be in some other places people think of. They're mostly falling on parking lots, roofs, roads, and then we get all that accumulated storm water coming into the park.

Jennifer Errick: Stanford Run was bringing so much sediment and debris into the park, it began to overwhelm the existing stream bed as well as the larger landscape. Long-term changes in weather patterns have only compounded the problem. According to Davis, the park has seen an increase of about an inch of rain every decade on average for the past 50 years or so, which over time has added up to much more damage.

Chris Davis: You can imagine there's a lot of issues when you're getting a lot more storm water than you are historically used to or even pre-historically used to. It's concentrating a lot of force in a very small town, so we have a lot of erosion, but also stuff being brought in from outside. So Stanford Run literally had filled up with eroded sediments that were brought into the lower reaches of the creek. It literally was gone. It had been filled in with dirt that had been washed into the lower reaches.

Jennifer Errick: Once the creek was completely jammed with dirt and debris and had clogged two culverts, all that water could no longer flow freely in the stream bed. One of the culverts had originally allowed the creek to flow under a hiking and biking path, known as the Towpath Trail, one of the most popular attractions at the park. But once that path was blocked, all of that water had to find somewhere else to go.

Chris Davis: The culvert was not big enough to carry the flow, but so it just backed up, which created a huge impounded wetland behind the Towpath Trail. The creek bed, again, had completely filled in with basically like sand sediment, leaves. And so instead of flowing how it's used to over towards the Towpath Trail, and now was literally following Stanford Road. So Stanford Road literally had become the stream bed when that culvert got blocked up. And so what used to just be like a regular kind of just a very rural looking two-lane road, now was literally always carrying the flow of Stanford Run. So the whole hydrology of the whole area was completely destroyed.

Jennifer Errick: Although the National Park Service now owns this country road and it's no longer a residential area, at the time when the creek began flooding the road, people lived along the street. It was a mess for the community and a mess for the river and the many animals and plants that relied on its water. This is the part of the story I draw strength from, because this is where the advocacy of hundreds and hundreds of people led to a real solution at Stanford Run. And while this advocacy wasn't as large in scale as the millions of people who protested as part of the first Earth Day in 1970, what happened at Cuyahoga Valley represents the spirit of that legacy to compel the government to do something.

Cuyahoga Valley is one of 13 national park sites in the Great Lakes region, one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the world. The National Park Service is one of 16 federal agencies that have been working since 2010, with tribal nations, state governments, and a variety of community partners to carry out the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a congressionally funded program run through the Environmental Protection Agency that supports restoration projects throughout the Great Lakes. The kinds of improvements Chris Davis and his colleagues needed at Cuyahoga Valley require millions of dollars and years of work. And the National Park System already has a backlog of expensive repair projects it can't afford to fix. But thanks to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, staff at Cuyahoga Valley secured the funding they needed to clear the creek bed, replace the culverts, and redirect this important source of freshwater back to the river.

Kira Davis: Water is a part of all of us. Just as we protect people with legislative practice and policies, we should protect water, right?

Jennifer Errick: Kira Davis, no relation to Chris Davis, is Great Lake Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, a Michigan native and a member of the Bear Clan of the Anishinaabe. Her deep cultural connections to Lake Michigan and the larger Great Lakes region shaped her life and led her on her path to becoming a water protector. She was recently named a north star of northern Michigan by Traverse Michigan Magazine, and she speaks not just to the ecological significance of these parks, but to their emotional significance as well.

Kira Davis: I honestly don't think a lot of us in the Great Lakes communities could have gotten through COVID without what we have around us, surrounding us. We saw record numbers at the Great Lakes National Parks when COVID hits, and those numbers are still remaining high. And what it did is it brought comfort to Americans of seeing the beauty of this planet, of Mother Earth. We owe it to her, to take care of her as she's taking care of us.

Jennifer Errick: But Davis is concerned that there aren't enough resources to care for these places which are facing new and worsening problems from the changing climate and the strain of hosting more and more visitors.

Kira Davis: One of our parks up in the upper peninsula of Michigan on Lake Superior Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore, it is the most beautiful park, and I don't know if people know this, but they've seen a 300% increase in visitation in the last 10 years. But with that 300% increase, we also have to acknowledge that they only have one natural resource staff at their park. So on top of being interpreters and making sure all Americans can access these parks, they also have to make sure that that water is protected because it's a part of us.

Jennifer Errick: Davis clarifies that the park does have seasonal and temporary rangers who help with management tasks and that many projects are done in partnership with other agencies, but one full-time person to manage the entire ecology of a park that covers 42 miles of some of the most spectacular coastline and rock formations along Lake Superior. It just doesn't add up. Although the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative doesn't fund staff positions, it helps resource strapped land managers make their limited budgets go a whole lot further.

Kira Davis: That is exactly the reason why we need to keep funds like Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in this basin. And on top of that, we need to align that with increase of operation budgets for the National Park Service, so that they can continue to be the restoration leads in the Great Lakes and provide all Americans a good experience and maintain these parks for the next generations.

Jennifer Errick: Restoration projects aren't the only kind of work this funding supports.

Kira Davis: They're dealing with things like shoreline birds dying off on the lake shores of Lake Michigan. Obviously, if you have dead birds washing up on the shoreline, it does not entice people to go swimming, go kayaking and use those waters. So sleeping Verdun's National Lakeshore spent over 13 years trying to solve this problem of why the shoreline birds were ending up dead on Lake Michigan, and they've made huge strides and found solutions to dealing with the issue behind the shoreline birds,

Jennifer Errick: According to Davis, invasive mussels were contributing to the spread of bacteria in Lake Michigan. Fish were eating the bacteria and birds were eating the fish, eventually dying from botulism. Funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative supported plans to study the problem and implement targeted strategies to control the spread of the invasive mussels and reduce outbreaks of the bacteria, helping the birds survive. Davis and other NPCA staff have lobbied for years to secure this funding to benefit all our Great Lakes National Park sites, including Cuyahoga Valley, and we continue to advocate for Congress to increase this funding.

Kira Davis: What you can do with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and what it provides for people like you and me, the stories are endless,

Jennifer Errick: And that's part of why I feel this is an important story to share, because it's an example of real-world advocacy and action. Since 2005, NPCA has co-led The Healing Our Waters Coalition, a group of more than 170 organizations that have flown hundreds of people year after year to Washington DC to meet directly with congressional staff. And these constituents have brought their concerns about our Great Lakes parks to their lawmakers and demanded that they fund solutions that improve public lands. Over time, this has resulted in billions of additional dollars to support all of the projects we've been talking about in these parks and many, many more. In the case of Cuyahoga Valley, this made a tangible difference. Here again is ecologist Chris Davis.

Chris Davis: We had identified it as a problem long ago, but there was really not funding to take care of these kind of issues, in general, at this scale. This is a big project. Thousands of feet of creek basically gone. Collars are expensive, and so we just could not get the money. So it was on the kind of the list of to do for years and years and years. And then GLRI, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative came along and started providing designated targeted funding for this kind of work.

Jennifer Errick: About two years ago, a robust collaboration of local and federal agencies led by the Army Corps of Engineers completed the largest phase of the project, digging out accumulated layers of silt and debris from more than 2000 feet of the creek bed, replacing the two clogged culverts with larger ones and redirecting the stream to its original location. Park staff continue to work with volunteers, including thousands of schoolchildren, to reforest the surrounding area. The improvements Chris Davis has witnessed have been dramatic.

Chris Davis: Concerning water quality. We do have some tools and equipment to actually measure oxygen and the actual quality of the water, but we also do a lot of fish sampling. Fish are a really good indicator of the quality of water. And so we've done a lot of fish surveys now in this restored section. And again, before we did the project, the creek was literally gone. It was running down a paved road. Since then, we found a whole variety of native fish. We have a whole variety of darters, which in general, are indicators of water quality. We know what's doing better, and the proof is just in the species we see in there.

Jennifer Errick: The proof is also in the species around the creek.

Chris Davis: As soon as we finished this project and water actually started running through the restored creek channel, we had beavers move in upstream. Beavers generally, they hear running water and they want to stop it. That's just kind of what they do. And so as soon as we got that water running again, beavers moved in upstream and then they create a whole system up there too, that just provides incredible habitat for a variety of fish and insects and other creatures. So there's a whole bunch of indicators out there that this project really improved the overall quality of the environment in that area.

Jennifer Errick: And then word really got out.

Chris Davis: Immediately started seeing snapping turtles, for instance, in that creek. Snapping turtles are kind of common here, and they're not really creek adapted kind of creatures, but there's big wetlands around it. But we just started seeing things like that. Frogs, again, just frogs, but all of a sudden they were back in the creek channel.

Jennifer Errick: Another benefit is simply being able to talk about what happened.

Chris Davis: Here's what humans did. This river was burning, literally burning on fire 50 years ago. Look, some of these creeks here, they no longer existed, and look what's back. So it is kind of a cool story just by itself.

Jennifer Errick: Kira Davis emphasizes that without this special funding, the creek bed would probably still be a pile of dirt.

Kira Davis: Without those dollars coming directly to the agency, it could still be sitting there, degraded, and without the fish that you can see today in it. Without the Gray Lakes Restoration Initiative, I don't know how long or how on hold some of these projects that are absolutely needed in Cuyahoga when they would've been taken on.

Jennifer Errick: Both Chris Davis and Kira Davis spoke with me about another major project in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, supported by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that continues to have positive effects on the park and its wildlife. About three years ago, another large coalition of local, state and federal agencies, removed a structure known as the Brecksville Dam, restoring a large section of the Cuyahoga River back to a free flowing state.

Chris Davis: It was the only dam located inside of the park boundaries. It was a dam there was built way back like in 1800s and diverted water into the canal. And then later they built a new dam, and they diverted water to help with some utilities and electrical generations, some of that kind of stuff. So now we've removed that dam again in partnership with a whole bunch of different organizations, and now we're seeing fish upstream of there we've never seen before. It may not have been there for 100 years or more. For instance, somebody found a walleye. Again, walleye lake areas, that's what it's kind of famous for, but we just didn't really have walleye coming up past that dam in general. There was a giant fish we caught, it's called I think a big mouth buffalo. Found a really huge one of those upstream where the dam used to be, and it's almost like undoubtedly that fish has not been in that stretch of the river for 100, 150 years. So removing that dam had a great, great positive influence on, again, water quality. The river's flowing more freely, there's more oxygen in the water. It's better for everything. There's more bugs living there, more food for the fish, more fish for the birds to eat. So it's a whole kind of ecosystem thing. But removing that dam was awesome.

Jennifer Errick: With both of these projects, the Stanford Run restoration and the Brecksville Dam removal, Chris Davis is quick to point out the many agencies and community groups that contributed to the work. And Kira Davis notes that these broad coalitions are a big part of what gives the projects their strength.

Kira Davis: Cuyahoga as you may know, is a fragmented park. They have partners in many different municipalities within the park boundaries, and so they are a prime example of what collaboration and innovativeness and leverage can do within a park. They don't have a choice but to work with others. In my opinion, Cuyahoga GLRI projects stand out because of their collaborative nature. They've been able to leverage each dollar to go farther, and that's because of their partners. That Brecksville Dam removal opened up 36 miles of river, and again, without GLRI and those communities that surround that place, we may not have seen that dam removed, but now it's a free flowing section of river again, so it can function as it indeed was supposed to.

Jennifer Errick: The National Park Service has only received about 2% of the overall funding provided by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, funding that's administered by the EPA. Kira Davis believes that many other projects would benefit from that support, and she continues to lobby for parks to receive more of those funds.

Kira Davis: There's plenty of projects that still need to be funded. One thing that we think will help is to share the stories of what the Great Lakes national Parks have done to date. And we need to educate those people within EPA and that make those decisions on EPA, of the great work that the parks can do. And if you give them more funding, just imagine what they can do.

Jennifer Errick: For projects like these, Kira Davis sees a clear motivating connection to her heritage.

Kira Davis: Those national parks in the Great Lakes are working to tell authentic stories of the people that were first here, they're indigenous communities. And by protecting Great Lakes, you're protecting our traditions and ceremonies because they're all related to water.

Jennifer Errick: She finds optimism in this restoration work and in the youth carrying the larger work forward.

Kira Davis: I'm getting to be an older woman, let's just put it that way. Okay? I'm close to 50 here, and I have had the opportunity to talk to so many youth, at least in northern Michigan about what's important to them. And it's interesting to me because when I grew up, I don't feel like I had the same appreciation and love as I do right now and perspective. But our next generations, I really feel the power within them to understand what's going on on this planet. I think something called traditional ecological knowledge is playing a role in our youth. And what traditional ecological knowledge is something that you incorporate with your western science. For example, if you go out with a real wild racer, which in northern Michigan, wild race is part of our creation story, you watch those people go, they watch that race every season and they can tell you what's going on with that race a lot quicker than somebody with just western science skills. So, it's really respecting and loving that species. And so I do see pieces of that in our youth, and so I do have optimism.

Jennifer Errick: Chris Davis also feels hopeful about his work.

Chris Davis: I am pretty positive about the future of nature at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and I mean, can't put the genie back in the bottle. There's way more rain, there's way more precipitation, temperatures are changing. That's not really good for the park, it's not good for the river, it's not good for the things that live in the river, but it's the way it is. But at the same time, over that same period, we had incredible comebacks going on here that continue. Just like couple months ago, somebody filmed a bobcat, and bobcat again, it's not super rare. It's not like I'm an endangered species list or anything, but in this area, they were gone. So, to have something like that back here, just last spring, we saw another black bear, didn't stay. Our park isn't really, I don't think big enough to support population of black bears, but we have one passed through here, and stopped and stayed and people took some cool pictures of it at the park. So, we have still continuing to come back that we have not seen here for a very long time. Part of that's because we're like here at the park, we're doing cool stuff and trying to help, but a lot of it is just nature is just recovering on its own.

Jennifer Errick: Earth Day is when the staff at Cuyahoga Valley usually kick off their volunteer events, which last for most of the year. Davis is so enthusiastic about the tree plantings, invasive plant removal, trail maintenance, and other projects. He's even recruited his sons to help on multiple occasions.

Chris Davis: Both of my two sons, one's a little older, but they've both been here over the last few years helping us plant trees. My older son might be coming in this afternoon to help us plant seeds in our greenhouse, so I think they think it's cool.

Jennifer Errick: We'll include a link to the volunteer calendar in our show notes. I know that I've loved the time I've spent at this one-of-a-kind urban park, and it makes me proud to see it held up as an example of progress and success at a time when hope can be hard to find. So, I'll close with Davis's call to be part of that better future, because that's ultimately what Earth Day is about, isn't it?

Chris Davis: We have a continuous variety of opportunities for public citizens and local classes to come here and help us do so much cool stuff. And if anybody is interested, we have a fantastic group here. It's a combination of National Park Service rangers and employees, working with our partner group, the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The gates are just open. We have so many opportunities for so many different folks to do different stuff here. It's fantastic.

Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 18, Hope Along the Cuyahoga, was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Alison Heis, Linda Coutant, and Vanessa Pius. 

Special thanks to Terrance Liggins for capturing the sounds of special places within Cuyahoga Valley National Park. 

Original theme music by Chad Fischer. Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at 

Learn more about Cuyahoga Valley National Park at 

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters. NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.

And we're proud of it, too. 

You can join the fight to preserve Cuyahoga Valley and all of our Great Lakes national parks. Learn more and join us at