By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
Bald eagles are nesting in North Toledo, threatening one of the city’s most anticipated construction projects: the eastern section of the Buckeye Basin Greenbelt Parkway.
One of the two confirmed eagle nests is in Manhattan Marsh, which means it is in or near the path of the planned parkway.
It means city officials might face legal barriers to construction if the eagle’s habitat would be damaged.
Opponents of the road are elated.
“The eagles are just the miracle we needed to push it over the top,” said environmental activist Rick Van Landingham, who leads the group Citizens for Buckeye Basin Parks.
Mr. Van Landingham has spent years trying to stop the eastern section of the Buckeye Basin project, which would connect Point Place to downtown.
He argues that the roadway would sacrifice wetlands, including Manhattan Marsh.
In 1996, he was arrested for chaining himself to a bulldozer in an attempt to stop construction on the parkway’s western half.
But now that an eagle’s nest has been found in the marsh, Mr. Van Landingham has a new weapon in his arsenal.
Federal law is very strict about limiting development near a nest of America’s national symbol.
“The city sure isn’t interested in destroying something like that,” said Mike Justen, the city’s director of public service. “That could certainly be an issue.”
Mark Shieldcastle, a biologist at the Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station in Ottawa County, said the state has never faced a situation where a nest was threatened by road construction.
If the parkway were to go forward, state and federal wildlife officials would have to determine how much it would interfere with the nest.
Buddy Fazio, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ohio office, said that the Bald Eagle Protection Act prohibits anyone from disturbing or destroying an eagle’s nest.
But he added that exceptions are possible if federal officials conclude that an important public project would need to disturb a nest. “We try not to do that, but that is a legal mechanism we have,” he said.
He did not know of any exceptions being granted for a bald eagle nest.
Issues involving the eagles would be decided during negotiations between city and federal officials after the project’s start. Those negotiations can take years, Mr. Fazio said.
The Buckeye Basin has been in the planning stage for more than a quarter century.
The Ohio Department of Transportation is scheduled to complete the western section of the road – connecting Cherry Street to I-280 – by this fall.
The eastern section, though – connecting the interstate to Summit Street – is a city project.
The federal government has agreed to contribute $24 million to the $30 million cost; the city will have to come up with the rest.
Mr. Van Landingham’s group has purchased more than 40 acres in the marsh in an attempt to protect it. The eagle’s nest sits on the group’s property.
Proponents of the parkway have maintained that it is a critical link from Point Place to downtown. Two major train tracks, owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern, cross the other major streets joining the two areas, making long delays a fact of life for residents.
But a merger involving Norfolk Southern and Conrail means that Norfolk Southern will reduce dramatically the amount of traffic on its North Toledo line.
There will be only one major train track across the area.
Building a bridge over it might be cheaper than building a new road, Mr. Van Landingham said.
The parkway remains in the city’s plans, but no money has been allocated to the project.
“Right now, we don’t have immediate plans to move forward with it,” Mr. Justen said.
Mayor Carty Finkbeiner learned of the eagles when Mr. Van Landingham sent a photo of one to him in early December.
On Dec. 14, he received a memo from Dennis Garvin, the city’s supervisor of parks, recreation, and forestry, confirming the nest sites, which could be used by eagles for years.
But the mayor has not mentioned the bald eagles publicly. He did not return numerous telephone calls seeking comment.
Nature advocates were thrilled at the news of Toledo’s newest residents.
“Boy, a bald eagle!” said Mr. Garvin, when asked his response the first time he heard about the eagles. “That’s a strong argument for maintaining public green spaces.”
Councilwoman Edna Brown saw a bald eagle at the marsh last month when Mr. Van Landingham took her on a tour.
“It was an exciting moment, just to think that we have a bald eagle right here,” she said. “That marsh is really an intriguing area.”
She said she would oppose the Buckeye Basin project’s extension through the marsh, and said she doubts it will ever happen.
“That phase of the parkway is on the books, but frankly I don’t think that it will ever be built, with or without the eagles’ nest,” she said. “But having the nest there makes the possibility even less.”
Mr. Van Landingham is trying to raise money to purchase more land, as well as build a nature center and a trail from which to view the eagles.
As for the state, Mr. Shieldcastle said its next step is to wait to see what the birds will do.
Bald eagles usually stop their nest building during early winter and resume in February.
The other confirmed bald eagle nest is in North Toledo, north of Alexis Road.
It is on private property. The two sites are believed to be the first bald eagle nests ever in Toledo.
Bald eagles were put on the federal endangered species list in the 1960s but were removed from it in 1994, after their populations made a remarkable recovery.
They are still considered a threatened species under federal law.