Dayton prairie targeted for development, upsetting some

Conservationists are putting pressure on the city of Dayton to try to prevent one of the oldest reconstructed prairies in Ohio from being redeveloped for industrial or commercial uses.

The Paul E. Knoop Jr. Prairie at the northeast corner of Frederick Pike and West National Road near the Dayton International Airport has hundreds of native plant species and is used as a habitat by a variety of threatened or endangered animals, birds and insects, supporters say.

The prairie is beautiful and thriving, and a creek that starts on the property is vital to wildlife at Aullwood Audubon Farm and Aullwood Garden MetroPark, said Alexis Faust, executive director of Aullwood Audubon.

MORE: Aullwood center and farm is Audubon’s ‘flagship’

“Not only do I think it would have an impact on overall conservation in the region, but I think it would have a profound impact on the migratory birds, the wildlife and the Wiles Creek waterway,” Faust said. “I think it’s impossible to calculate the conservation consequences of this.”

But the Dayton International Airport has tripled the amount of prairie grass on airport land in the last decade, and the airport is obligated to find the highest and best uses for its land, which in this case is industrial and commercial that will bring new jobs, said Terry Slaybaugh, Dayton’s aviation director.

“We understand our neighbors’ concerns and sensitivities, but we think we try to do a good job of balancing that with our primary mission, which is obviously to run an airport,” Slaybaugh said.

In the mid-1990s, a 140-acre field at the northeast corner of Frederick Pike and National Road became the Paul E. Knoop Jr. Prairie.

MORE: Two companies landing at new giant warehouses near Dayton airport

Knoop is a well-known naturalist and educator who retired from Aullwood in 1994 after 35 years with the organization. Knoop and others used seeds from local plants to turn a weedy crop field into a tall-grass prairie.

The prairie land is owned by the Dayton airport, but used to be managed by the Audubon Center, as part of a lease agreement.

The lease agreement expired and was not renewed in 2007 based on concerns from the Federal Aviation Administration over wildlife hazards and other non-compatible land uses, airport officials said.

The site is important to economic development at the airport, which is housing world-class companies that are employing more than 2,200 people, not counting airport employees, Slaybaugh wrote Faust in a May 13 letter.

Faust said surveyors were out at the property in recent weeks and airport officials told her that Missouri company NorthPoint Development was interested in about 109 acres of the prairie site.

Faust and others say the prairie should be permanently preserved because of its rich ecosystem and importance to local wildlife.

Songbirds nest there. Large numbers of migratory birds visit the area in the fall to feed on seeds and nectar.

MORE: $92.3M capital investment: Dayton airport real estate moves draw 2K+ jobs

The Knoop prairie sits on the headwaters to Wiles Creek, which runs through Aullwood’s property and travels south to Aullwood Garden MetroPark, Faust said. About 30 percent of the water on the prairie property flows into the creek, which is important to thousands of species of animals, birds, insects and amphibians, she said.

The creek is home to fish, mussels, salamanders, frogs and other species that feed local wildlife.

“I know there’s a lot of property around the airport they own that does not have prairies as old as Knoop’s prairie on it, and I hope some alternative site can be found,” Faust said.

Aullwood supporters have been contacting city and airport leadership to urge them to preserve Knoop prairie.

A post on Aullwood’s social media had been viewed tens of thousands of times and shared by more than 1,000 people.

Knoop, 84, told this newspaper he’s concerned about the health of the watershed, which is the “lifeblood” of Aullwood.

“It’s a nice piece of greenspace … It’s also a wonderful wildlife area,” Knoop said. “A lot of meadow-field birds that normally aren’t found around there are found in that prairie.”

The airport has been a regional leader in job creation and new development, and the best and highest use of this 109 acres of land is commercial uses, Slaybaugh said.

The airport has 4,800 acres of property, and about 250 acres are used as prairie, not counting the Knoop land, Slaybaugh said.

He said multiple pieces of property nearby north of West National Road are being converted to tall grass lands.

The airport can continue “Marie Aull and Paul Knoop’s legacies” by expanding its prairie grass program at the airport and others across the country, Slaybaugh said in his letter to Faust.

The airport has to figure out income-generating uses for its properties that aren’t runway zones, like agricultural or new development, Slaybaugh said.

MORE: This Dayton MetroPark is about to get much bigger

NorthPoint Development has developed five large industrial buildings on airport property and plans to build more.

The warehouses, logistics centers and industrial and manufacturing buildings are bringing large numbers of jobs to the region. Chewy last week announced it is hiring 500 workers in early June for its fulfillment center at the airport.

The Dayton airport recently reached an agreement with NorthPoint Development to put prairie grass ground cover around its new logistics and manufacturing buildings, Slaybaugh said.

Tallgrass prairie once covered 170 million acres of North America, including about 1,500 square miles of Ohio’s vegetation, according to federal and state estimates.

But owing to changes in climate and development and other human activities, less than 1 percent of the state's native prairie landscape exists today, says the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

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