Although she grew up loving nature, Cleveland native Nancy Stranahan admits it was a self-described mid-life crisis in her early-40s that sparked her passionate dive into preservation after she and her then-husband took a trip to Central America and, for the first time, experienced true wilderness.
“We knew then that we didn’t want to lead uneventful lives,” Stranahan explained. “We wanted to make a difference and leave the world a bit better than we found it.”
While they casually entertained the fantasy of buying a van and moving to Costa Rica, Stranahan knew that would be “checking out.” Instead, they started looking for opportunities to promote wildlands preservation in their home state of Ohio while continuing their work running Benevolence Café and Bakery in the North Market.
“Our overwhelming purpose is to preserve wildlands in Ohio, the best of what remains, so we can represent the native plants and animals, but most importantly, their communities.”
NANCY STRANAHAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ARC OF APPALACHIA
In 1995, the couple bought 40 acres and a cave after seeing a “for sale” sign while driving down Cave Road in Ross County. It turned out to be just the beginning.
Two years later, they formed the Highlands Nature Sanctuary nonprofit and began cultivating $100 donations to help purchase additional caves and lands for sale near their original purchase.
By 2004, the Highlands Nature Sanctuary had grown to a few thousand acres in size.
“We had always presumed that the Sanctuary would remain our only land preservation project, but when I visited a prairie in Adams County that was for sale, one that boasted 43 state-endangered species, I knew we just had to expand our vision,” Stranahan said. “Kamama Prairie became our second preservation project, and that’s when the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System name was created to better describe the nonprofit’s growing footprint.”
Today, the Arc of Appalachia includes 24 preserves, 8,000 acres, and is still rapidly growing. It specializes in offering courses to the public in forest ecology, conservation, and stewardship, and provides opportunities for people of all ages to engage with nature through events and experiences.
In 2012, the Arc of Appalachia – Highlands Nature Sanctuary Endowment Fund was established at The Columbus Foundation to help ensure the long-term viability and success of the Arc of Appalachia.
“The endowment fund is the biggest component of our sustainability plan,” Stranahan explained.
Stranahan said 65,000 people visited the Arc’s 50-plus miles of hiking trails last year. “Ten of the preserves have truly breathtaking public hiking trails and we’re working on 20 more miles as we speak. It’s a major expenditure of our organization and volunteer efforts.”
At 3,000 acres, the Highlands Nature Sanctuary remains the largest of the Arc’s preserves, and offers 16 miles of hiking trails. It also serves as the Arc’s headquarters and is the home of the Appalachian Forest Museum, which “interprets the world significance of the nation’s Eastern Hardwood Forests,” according to the Arc’s website.
“We want people to reconnect with nature,” Stranahan said. “We see nature as our home. Unfortunately, we’ve created a culture that has kept a lot of people separate from the natural world. We see our job as bringing nature and people back together again.”