Local and national groups are developing plans to manage the Dr. Robert “Doc” Nehls Memorial Nature Preserve on Catawba Island. The beautiful property had long been a special place to enjoy nature and the calm West Harbor waters for the late veterinarian and outdoorsman and his wife, Norma Nehls.
“Sunsets there are beautiful, and across the waters we could enjoy the twinkling lights of the local business coming on in the evening,” said Norma Nehls. “It had been a wonderful place for Bob and I to enjoy the natural beauty of the entire area.”
After her husband’s death, Norma felt the property should be shared, and made a special arrangement to have it become a park and nature area. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaders at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor recently signed a partnership agreement with the Black Swamp Conservancy, outlining plans to cooperatively manage the Nehls Memorial Nature Preserve to protect wildlife habitat and increase recreational opportunities.
“We’re excited to work with other conservation leaders to promote and expand outdoor recreation while restoring and protecting habitat for wildlife,” said Refuge Manager Jason Lewis of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in western Ottawa County. “We’re especially excited to connect more with our neighbors and the communities of Port Clinton and Catawba Island.”
The site was previously used for farming, and then as a campground, until the late 1990s. In 2003, Dr. Robert L. Nehls and his wife, Norma Nehls, purchased the property. They began restoring it to native habitat by clearing campground remnants from the land. After Dr. Nehls died, Norma Nehls pursued an owner who could convert the site to a publicly accessible natural area.
Rob Krain, executive director of Black Swamp Conservancy, said the project provides numerous recreational, economic, and aesthetic preservation benefits to the residents of Ottawa County.
“It will improve and permanently preserve a riparian corridor that provides critical stopover habitat for migratory birds, habitat for wildlife, and filters runoff pollution from surface water before entering West Harbor,” said Krain. “Protection and restoration of this property is a key component of the Conservancy’s larger initiative to improve water quality and protect and restore native habitat across the Western Lake Erie Basin.”
The preserve is located on East Muggy Road in Catawba Island Township. The property covers approximately 21 acres of land and 18 acres of submerged land along West Harbor. Approximately 7.7 acres of the property, formerly in agricultural use, was planted in June 2019 to shortgrass prairie /pollinator meadow habitat.
Other areas within the property will be restored to woodland, wetland, and scrub-shrub habitat. Approximately 8.2 acres of the property has large cottonwood and maple trees spaced to provide an open under-story with plenty of shade.
“This area will offer great opportunities for wildlife observation and photography, hiking, and birdwatching. A nature trail will traverse the property and incorporate a variety of habitats and wildlife experience opportunities,” said Lewis. “The property protects 1,173 feet of undeveloped shoreline where the public will have canoe and kayak access to the Lake Erie Islands Water Trail and where people can enjoy fishing and paddle sports.”
Pedestrian access from the residential neighborhood at the southwest corner of the site will be available. A small parking area will allow access, trails are being planned, as well as a public shelter.
A small tree planting along the western border is planned to create a visual buffer where the preserve is adjacent to a neighborhood. Long term, the group hopes to provide a non- motorized boat launch and fishing platforms.
The Dr. Robert L. Nehls Memorial Nature Preserve is expected to open for public use in Summer 2021. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Black Swamp Conservancy plan to host an open house in the future to gauge public interest and hear the public’s desire for future use.