Bob Downing

COPLEY TWP.: The dream of two Summit County brothers has come true.


The family’s vegetable-farm-turned-?wetland is now the property of the University of Akron, and Steve and Jerry Panzner couldn’t be happier.


“It’s really cool to walk out there and see so much wildlife, but having others come out and study it makes it ultimately better,” Steve Panzner, 59, said. “It’s what we wanted in the first place. It was our mission from Day One.”


His 54-year-old brother added, “It’s amazing. It’s exactly what we wanted … and it’s really a win-win situation.”


The 104.67-acre property, off Wright Road, is officially known as the Panzner Wetland Wildlife Reserve.


The tract is composed of wet meadows, marshes, shallow ponds, wet woods and an abundance of wetland-loving plants and animals, some of which are rare. It was once part of the Copley Swamp.


The one-time muck farm with its black, peaty soil and its high-carbonate water is a thriving, high-quality wetland environment that was designed and nurtured by the two brothers under federal and state oversight along Pigeon Creek, a Tuscarawas River tributary.


For individuals to create wetlands on private land is out of the ordinary. And to have farmers devise a workable plan to get out of farming and return their land to wetlands with little public help is almost unheard of. This is what makes the Panzners’ effort so unusual.


Wetland mitigation banks are part of a process by which developers pay people, such as the Panzners, to restore wetlands at one location in exchange for the destruction of wetlands at another location.


The Panzners’ customers included the city of Akron and the Ohio Department of Transportation.


The federal government has pushed for no net loss of wetlands because of their environmental importance. To achieve that, wetlands lost in one location must be replaced somewhere else.


Wetlands clean surface water, supply aquifers, control drainage and floods, limit erosion and provide food and cover for wildlife.


Ohio ranks second in the nation in the loss of original wetlands. About 800,000 acres remain, while 6.7 million acres have been lost.


In 1999, the Panzner brothers turned the family’s 150-acre farm — established by Joseph Panzner, their German immigrant grandfather — into what is called a wetland mitigation bank. Five years of planning went into the effort.


Developers paid the Panzners about $20,000 per acre of wetland destroyed, or nearly $2 million in total. Most of that money was funneled into restoring the wetlands. It also provided part of the income for the two families, who kept some land around their houses.


Most of the wetland restoration work was done from 1999 to 2004, with adjustments made in 2006. The final wetlands credits were sold last spring.


In restoring the wetland, the brothers dug up 18 inches of soil and cut the drainage system. Pumps that kept water from the fields were turned off and wetland plants were brought in. Others emerged from deep in the muck soils.


Seeds of plants that had grown on the site were ordered and replanted.


Restoring the wetland became the brothers’ full-time jobs and their passion. It was a job they both loved, Steve said.


The hardest part of the process was dealing with the bureaucracies of seven federal, state and local agencies, the brothers said.


The result is a wetland filled with 24 species of mammals, 80 species of birds, seven species of fish, eight species of frogs, six species of turtles, 28 species of butterflies and 14 species of dragonflies and damselflies.


The preserve repeatedly has been cited for being one of the best mitigation banks in the state by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.


What the Panzners created has become Class 3 wetlands, the highest quality.


Dr. Randall Mitchell, an Akron biology professor and director of the university’s biological field station, called the brothers’ work “stupendous.”


Everyone initially thought the man-made wetland would be filled only with invasive species, but the Panzners took care and cultivated the wetlands “in a very special way,” Mitchell said. “They did such a great job.”


But the Panzners wanted more. They sought to turn their man-made wetlands into an educational facility, a living laboratory for researchers.


“We wanted the property to be a teaching and research mecca,” Jerry said.


Finding the right partner wasn’t easy. Metro Parks, Serving Summit County; the Nature Conservancy; and local land trusts all rebuffed the brothers’ offers.


UA was among five colleges and universities conducting biological research at the Copley site. The enthusiasm the university showed convinced the Panzners, both UA alums, that they should donate the wetlands to the school, a process that took three years to finalize.


The brothers also established an endowment fund to provide the needed money to the university to maintain the preserve.


The Panzners’ property will provide UA with “a field site to study and understand wetlands, their role and their restoration,” Mitchell said. It will complement the university’s Bath Township field station, he said.


Public access to the Copley site will be restricted.


Restoring the wetland is “one of the best things that have ever happened to me,” Steve said.


His brother added, “We’re just very happy to share it with the university.”


Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.