Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center

In 1998, with the help of an anonymous donor, Ashland University purchased 38 acres of wetland six miles south of campus on U.S. 42. In 2004, an additional 260 acres was purchased with the support of a grant from the Clean Ohio Conservation Fund, with a matching grant from the Richland County Foundation.  In 2017, seven acres were added with additional support from the Clean Ohio Conservation fund. This preserve has a mix of several habitats, including buttonbush swamp, swamp forest, marsh, riparian corridor, and upland areas. At 305 acres, the Black Fork Wetlands is the largest of Ashland University's five environmental preserves.

In order to develop the potential of the Black Fork Wetlands Preserve for education of Ashland University students and for outreach to the community and pre-college teachers and students, a group of faculty from the College of Arts & Sciences and College of Education began meeting in December 2004 to discuss the development of the Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center (BFWESC). In recognition of the educational and conservation value of this preserve, Ashland University approved the establishment of the BFWESC in April 2005.

The goals and vision for the Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center are:
• Conservation of critical habitat
• Public and K-12 school outreach
• Development and implementation of an interpretive center
• Field research and teaching by environmental science faculty
• Field research and education for post-secondary students
• Field teaching by science education faculty


The Black Fork Wetlands Preserve has a mix of several habitats, including buttonbush swamp, swamp forest, marsh, riparian corridor, and upland areas. Species observed at the preserve include beaver, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, soras, and sandhill cranes.

Wetlands are habitats with high ecological value. They have the highest biological productivity of terrestrial habitats outside of rainforest areas. They also provide valuable ecosystem services to human populations. Floodplain areas help slow, absorb, and filter water moving downstream during periods of high water. The inclusion of nearly 300 acres in the Black Fork Wetland Preserve lessens its susceptibility to outside activities that might affect it and also provides many species with the larger habitat areas needed for maintenance of their populations.


Access to the Black Fork Wetlands Preserve was helped enormously by the development of parking and boardwalk access to the area by Rt. 42, just inside the Richland Co. line. This was Phase I of the Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center, and included an observation tower, a deck big enough for larger groups, and 400 feet of boardwalk into a marsh adjacent to the Black Fork of the Mohican River. School groups and teacher-training groups have kept this site busy ever since.

In 2012, grants from the Crawford-Richland Central Labor Council and the Sislar-McFawn Foundation funded Phase II of the Black Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center. The new Wetlands Classroom  offically opened in Fall 2014. This eco-friendly building is adjacent to the parking and boardwalk facilities.


Ashland University undergraduate students and science faculty have been using the BFW for research projects since 1998. More recently, investigators from other universities have been using the site for their projects. Examples of research topics include:

  • Physical and chemical characteristics of small, diverse wetlands
  • Population genetics of invasive and non-invasive reed canarygrass
  • Diversity of birds, woody plants, dragonflies and damselflies
  • Territorial behavior and movement patterns of Virginia rails and Sora rails
  • plant diversity and community structure as an index of wetland quality
  • mapping vegetation change in a marsh invaded by reed canary grass
  • microbial diversity and ecology of aquatic habitats

Community &  K-12

For science and other disciplines (e.g. art, creative writing), outdoor sites are powerful classrooms. Wetlands and waterways can be particularly special because they connect to human communities upstream and downstream.

Kids of all ages enjoy putting on boots and waders, grabbing a bag or bucket, and going out into nature to figure something out and see what there is to see. Since 2005, we have been hosting groups of students and teachers (before the boardwalk, they had to slog a lot further). Teacher training groups seem to have as much fun as school groups! The question or study subject depends on the group, but all take advantage of this diverse natural area to learn and explore new ideas. For some suggested activities to try with school groups, see BFWESC Newsletters.

Community members use the BFWESC for birdwatching, photography, geocaching and nature breaks.

Starting in 2016, the Naturalist on Duty program has been offering short programs and informal learning options in an open-house format. These events are offered monthly on a Saturday during the warmer months of the year. AU environmental science faculty collaborate with Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalists to host visitors.

Citizen Science

Citizen Science is the term now used to describe real science projects that involve and depend on data submitted by citizens, including K-12 students and interested people of all ages. The Christmas Bird Count, coordinated by the National Audubon Society, is possibly the most familiar example of this kind of science project. At 100+ years, it is one of the oldest.

The growing number and diversity of these kinds of projects is a huge opportunity! Students can get involved in “real” science, learn about how science tackles big questions (e.g. watching the invasion of lady beetles over many years and across many states), and learn cool details about interesting wildlife or weather or water quality, etc. See this link for an extensive overview of the MANY kinds of projects out there, and this link for a list of more bird-related projects.

Here are some projects that we have been checking out lately:

  • Project BudBurst (collect data on the timing of leafing, flowering and fruiting of plants to learn more about the responsiveness of individual plant species to changes in climate locally,     regionally and nationally)
  • The Lost Ladybug Project (learn the basics of species identification to learn more about the location of rare species and the extent of invasive species—this project can be adapted easily to work with elementary-age students)
  • School of Ants (learn the amazing ecology of ant species and collect samples of city-dwelling ants to help researchers understand how both native and non-native ant species are adapting  to life in urban environments)
  • iNaturalist (upload your observations of plants and animals to the general collection or choose to contribute to specific projects), for example: Black Fork Wetlands Preserve (Ashland University)--search Ashland University to locate iNaturalist projects on main campus and at our five preserves

BFWESC Newsletters (ARCHIVE)

The BFWESC newsletter is one means for communicating the natural value and educational potential of the preserve and the Environmental Studies Center:

Fall 2010 - award from Richland County Soil & Water Conservation District, Bird List Updated, K-12 Activities, Sandhill Cranes
Winter 2009 - reports on boardwalk ribbon-cutting, building plans, trail development, teacher workshop, EECO 2009
Summer 2007 - report on completion of boardwalk, K-12 Activities, undergraduate research at the BFW
Spring 2006 - Ashland University joins Ohio Center for Wetland and River Restoration, K-12 Activity, trees and shrubs of the BFW
Fall 2005 - how the BFWESC got started, goals of the BFWESC, a bird list for the Black Fork Wetlands Preserve

Species List

These are compiled and updates at intervals by Dr. Richard Stoffer, Preserve Manager:
Trees and Shrubs