Ever notice how nobody every says just “Cleveland” when referring to that city in Ohio? It is always “Cleveland, Ohio” as if it is a little one-traffic-light town back in the hills, a dot on the map with about five residents more than a wide place in the road.

Cleveland is one of the bigger metropolitan areas in the United States. Situated in Cuyahoga County, the Greater Cleveland area encompasses 100 miles of Lake Erie shoreline and extends some 40-plus miles inland. Depending on how you look at it, it is a population center of either 1.4 or 2.9 million people. This statistical difference is because some folks like to include the city of Akron and the surrounding area in these figures.

Akron, due south of Cleveland, had its greatest growth in the first part of the 20th century when it was the home of the rubber barons : B. F. Goodrich, Goodyear, Firestone -- these are names that put Akron on the map. As Cleveland expanded with steel production for the automobile factories of Detroit, Akron followed with the manufacture of tires. With the growth of the two cities it was thought that by the year 2000 the Cleveland-Akron corridor would become one ugly urban sprawl.

Today the land between northern Akron and southeast Cleveland, almost 33,000 acres sparsely dotted with villages dating back to the early days of the Western Reserve, is the Cuyahoga Valley Park, a buffer zone of rolling hills and sparkling creeks, of quiet forests and placid meadows, a historical towpath, hiking, biking and horseback trails, toboggan runs, and fishing spots.

Until recently, the Park was the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, known as the CVRNA. Began in 1970 with a gradual acquisition of land parcels, it reached National Park status in October, 2003. It is the 57th park under the mantle of the National Park Service. Clevelanders affectionately call it simply, "The Valley".

Perhaps none of this would be available if Cleveland had not had the foresight 100 years ago to set aside land for recreational use. Roughly 16% of the CVNRA, over 5,200 acres, was immediately created with two jewels from Cleveland’s Metroparks system, the 2,154 acre Bedford Reservation and the more than 3,000 acres that make up the Brecksville Reservation. More importantly, the people of Cleveland are accustomed to having unspoiled nature virtually in their backyard. When the CVNR was first proposed 35 years ago, it made perfect sense to the local population. If you lived anywhere in the Cleveland metropolitan area, you could drive to one of 15 large and varied “reservations” in less than 20 minutes.

As Akron had its rubber barons, Cleveland had its steel barons. The period spanning the 19th and the 20th centuries was a time when self-made millionaires became philanthropists. While the Cleveland area never had anyone on the scale of Pittsburgh’s Andrew Carnegie, who began establishing free public libraries in 1881, a number of local businessmen made donations of land to enhance the quality of life in Cleveland.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Cleveland had a number of parks. These were generally small, inner-city affairs. One, which later became the Cleveland Zoo and a part of the Metroparks system, was 64 acres and a herd of 12 deer donated in 1882 by philanthropist J. H. Wade. In 1905 the Chief Engineer of the City Parks, William Stinchcomb, proposed acquiring raw land for future use. The Cleveland Metropolitan Park System, granddaddy of today’s “Cleveland Metroparks”, was established in 1917.

Most of the land was purchased in the 1920’s, resulting in nine major Reservations. Beginning again in 1960, Metroparks added the Cleveland Zoo and Rainforest, the swamp forest that makes up Bradley Woods Reservation, a nature center established in the inner-city Garfield Park Reservation, Huntington Reservation with its planetarium, Mill Stream Run Reservation offering hayrides and tobogganing, and the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation in the heart of the industrial center.

The original nine Reservations are closely tied to the three main rivers in the Cuyahoga Valley: the Rocky River to the west, the Chagrin River to the east, and the Cuyahoga River that formed the “Flats” in the heart of the city. This is the famous river that caught fire in the mid-1900’s. While the Reservations do not completely encircle the metropolitan area, they do form a chain of greenery, albeit interrupted, which merits the name Emerald Necklace.

Because so much of their surface includes land through which these three rivers cut their way to Lake Erie, much of the terrain consists of rocky gorges. This makes for very interesting hiking. On the edge of Hinckley Reservation, the most southern of the Metropark land, is several acres of land and a clubhouse owned by the Cleveland Hiking Club.

This organization was established in 1919 by two women, a librarian and a newspaper reporter, who placed a small article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer inviting interested parties to “take a walk”. The CHC has hiked relentlessly ever since, covering most of the metropolitan area with a majority of their hikes within the Metroparks system. They have, over the years, developed a roster of challenging hikes. Featured once a year, perhaps the most formidable is “16 Ridges”, a 10-mile scramble up and down the rocky slopes of Hinckley Reservation.

Hiking, both trail and cross-country, is only one of the many usages of the Metroparks. There are over 80 miles of bridle trails and two stables, six golf courses, all-terrain bicycle trails, five physical fitness trails, and over 60 miles of paved all-purpose trails for cycling, walking, running and in-line skating. All in all, there are 15 specified activities listed by park users.

One of the most popular activities is sport fishing: lake, stream, canal and Lake Erie itself. Over a quarter of a million visits are made annually for recreational fishing. The Metroparks, totaling almost 20,000 acres, draw 42 million visitors each year. There are 100 miles of connecting parkway, watched over by a staff of 80 park rangers.

What started in 1882 as a herd of 12 deer is now one of the largest urban zoos in the United States. The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Rainforest covers 168 acres of land only five minutes from downtown Cleveland and is the home of the largest primate collection in North America. Included in the Metroparks system is a year-around marina on Lake Erie, a waterfowl sanctuary, countless picnic areas, several nature centers, baseball, soccer and football fields, cross-country ski trails, ice fishing sites and ice skating rinks, boating and swimming areas, and playgrounds for small children.

The people of Cleveland are still looking ahead, planning for future generations. The current Emerald Necklace of parkland is now embedded in urban growth. Interested individuals and organizations envisage a second chain of environmental friendly lands. Tentatively named the “Outer Emerald Necklace in Northeast Ohio”, it would combine existing protected spaces in parks, conservation areas, and recreational lands.

This proposed greenbelt is designed as a buffer zone covering 212,480 acres of which 75,000 are already publicly owned or protected. Of the remaining land, it is estimated that half could be protected by conservation easements from private landowners. This leaves roughly 69,000 acres to be purchased at an estimated cost of $690 million. It sounds ambitious but Cleveland has tackled projects like this before.

“Gems of the Necklace” by Gary Allen Marmolya, Photographs Elite Press

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