From 1951 to 1989 the Feed Materials Production Center, just outside of Harrison, Ohio produced uranium cores as part of America’s nuclear weapons production during the Cold War. Today that land is Fernald Preserve, a Legacy Management site which underwent extensive environmental remediation starting 25 years ago. The ecological restoration took many years. In 2006 the cost of the restoration was estimated at $4.4 billion, making it the largest environmental clean-up in the history of the US at that time. Fernald Preserve is now full of wetlands, upland forests, tallgrass prairie and savanna. It’s a great place to go hiking and see birds and other wildlife.
Last month I visited Fernald Preserve with a group of Great Parks volunteers from Shaker Trace Seed Nursery. We went on a tour with one of Fernald Preserve’s educators, Penny, who showed us the Visitors Center and took us on a short hike outside.
Fernald Preserve is huge! The entire site is 1,050 acres, most of which has been restored to pre-European settlement conditions (some of the native prairie seeds planted at Fernald were grown at Shaker Trace Seed Nursery!). Penny started our tour by telling us a bit about the history of the Feed Materials Production Center and the land Fernald Preserve now occupies. We looked at maps of the site, there’s a giant map covering a wall of the Community Meeting Room, and talked about some of the animals found at Fernald today. I love the giant photos in the meeting room – so many beautiful creatures, and they’re all found right here in Ohio!
Fernald’s Visitors Center is an LEED certified building (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the first of its kind built in Ohio and one of only 100 buildings worldwide. It was designed with help from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture and Planning (DAAP). The building was built to use water and energy efficiently, which lowers the cost to operate and maintain the building. Some of the eco-friendly features of the Fernald Preserve Visitors Center are its ground-source heating and cooling system and a zero-charge biowetland. The biowetland has plants and microorganisms which help treat the buildings waste water.
The Visitors Center also has a great exhibit which depicts the sites’ history from the time of the Native Americans to today. We learned about the farming families who owned the land where the US government wanted to build the Feed Materials Production Center. They shared their stories with Fernald and visitors can listen to them on an interactive display. We also learned more about the US during the Cold War era.
The exhibit reminded me a lot of the exhibits at the Ohio History Center museum, both centers use historical objects to create a room or scene that looks like it was pulled directly out of the time period depicted. At Fernald, there is a display which looks like an American family’s living room from the 1950s. The television in the exhibit plays the 1951 film, Duck And Cover, created by United States federal government’s Civil Defense branch, which I found on YouTube.
Since I was only three years old when the Cold War ended in 1991, I never went through drills at school to practice ducking and covering. The other volunteers in our group were alive during this time and remembered the film and having to be prepared in case of a nuclear attack. The video and living room display really set the tone for me when we viewed the rest of the exhibit. It shows why the Feed Materials Production center was built and what motivated the people who worked there.
One of the many interactive components of the exhibit in the Visitor Center is a huge map of the Feed Materials Production Center. Visitors can select an area of the production center to learn more about what was done in that building. The people who worked at the production center usually only worked in one or two buildings. ‘Talking shop’ about your specific job was not allowed, at work or at home. Despite this pledge to keep quiet, the employees who worked at the production center were very social with one another. They had sports teams and spent a lot of time together outside of the production center, they just didn’t talk about work!
When the Feed Materials Production Center was closed in 1989, current and former employees, residents living near the site, community members and environmental activists worked with the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to decide what to do with the site. There was only so much money available and not enough to completely clean and decontaminate everything. In order to make a decision, the members of the group used a board game they created to decide what the former uranium processing facility site would become. One of the games that helped them decided to create the preserve is on display in the Visitors Center.
My favorite part of the Visitors Center highlights the plants and animals that can be found at Fernald Preserve. Photos of birds, butterflies, mammals, amphibians and other animals are displayed around the perimeter of a large naturally lit atrium. Examples of live Ohio prairie grasses are presented along with text and photos about each plant. There’s even a spotting scope set up so visitors can take a look at one of the nearby man-made wetlands and look for birds.
Before taking us on a walk to see Fernald’s flora and fauna in action, Penny told us about the environmental monitoring that continues today at Fernald. The contaminated soil that was dug up from the site (the depressions which were created were turned into wetlands) are stored onsite in an On-Site Disposal Facility. A visual display of all the layers used to prevent radioactive material from leaking into the soil and groundwater is shown as a column in the center of the atrium. The disposal facility is regularly inspected for erosion, invasive plants and burrowing animals. There is also ongoing groundwater extraction and treatment of the water beneath the site, which is part of the Great Miami Aquifer.
Fernald Preserve is gorgeous! Even though it was gray and cloudy when we visited, it was still beautiful. We walked through a tallgrass prairie, upland forest and by several man-made wetlands. The 7 miles of hiking trails would be great for jogging or hiking. The site is also a great birdwatching area – over two hundred species of birds have been observed, including one hundred species that nest at Fernald!
I think it’s wonderful that the production center employees, nearby residents and local community members decided to turn this site into a preserve! It’s the first of its kind and people from around the world have visited to get ideas and information on how they can do this in their own country. The Feed Materials Production Center was built and operated out of fear for war and a desire to protect America. I think it’s amazing that today the site is still protecting America. Instead of producing uranium cores, Fernald is protecting native plants and animals and sharing their beauty with anyone who visits.
Address: 7400 Willey Road Harrison, Ohio 45030
Phone Number: 513-648-6000
Hours: Fernald Preserve is open daily from 7am to dusk. The Visitors Center is open Wednesday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm.