This afternoon, the first sunny one in weeks, the headwaters of Big Darby Creek are quiet and still.

This afternoon, the first sunny one in weeks, the headwaters of Big Darby Creek are quiet and still.

A few buzzing wasps, a few ambitious squirrels, the call of the Northern Cardinal - this looks for the most part like any small, swampy forest in the Midwest. Even the creek, no wider than two feet in some places, appears nothing more than a post-rain trickle.

But at Big Darby Headwaters Nature Preserve, about a mile from Middleburg, you need to look closer. In reality, these 800 acres operated by The Nature Conservancy are the start of something beautiful - the source of one of the healthiest warm-water ecosystems in the country.

Here begins one of Ohio's great natural resources, a stream to be treasured and a unique refuge for animals, plants and people.

"For as long as I can remember, it's been a high-profile stream," said Anthony Sasson, a freshwater conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy in Ohio. "It's an exceptional warm-water habitat."

Scientists often say things like that about the places they work. Allow me to back him up.

Tributaries in the Darby watershed, about 560 square miles total, are home to about 90 species of fish and more types of clams and mussels than Europe and Africa combined. Years ago, 82 miles were designated a National and State Scenic River, a primary badge of honor for American waterways.

"This really is one of the finest streams in the world, not just in Ohio," said John O'Meara, executive director of Metro Parks.

From its birth, Sasson said the Darby has enjoyed good geographic flow, distance from large-scale development, lots of clean, cold groundwater, a gravel bottom and a lack of major dams. It's a rare, happy coincidence, and one always in peril.

Saving this stream through the years has required efforts you don't often hear about and rarely see - the fancy legal footwork and grind-it-out pavement-pounding from advocacy groups and concerned citizens that worthwhile conservation projects always demand.

Today, about 11,000 acres of the Darby watershed have been protected, studied, fought for and, best of all, presented to the public.

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