The Giving Tree: Commemorative Plantings

The Giving Tree: Commemorative Plantings

The greatest joy of the work I do is planting trees.

If you’re reading this blog, I doubt that I need to sell you on the ecological importance of trees. I don’t need to list all the ways that they make our lives and our planet better, you know that.

Over the past four years I have been honored to oversee the Parks Conservancy’s Commemorative Tree Planting Program in partnership with my colleague Phil Gruszka. I’ve planted trees to celebrate lives well lived and too early lost. I’ve been there for graduation ceremonies and for the exchange of vows. And what I have felt deeply from those experiences is the emotional significance trees can play in our lives — the spiritual, mythological and folkloric meaning they carry.

And most importantly, the way they make us feel.

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Family gathers in Schenley Park to celebrate the life of their loved one, Veda.

 

While the meanings and interpretations of a tree or tree planting are as varied as we are, they provoke a collective feeling of warmth.

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Andrew with his tree planted in Highland Park to celebrate his college graduation.

Usually when I meet a donor in the park to plant a tree we have never met face to face, but by the time we part I often get a hug. We are there to do good work and we are connected by the emotional significance of the moment and the change it will create.

In the Jewish faith it is said that trees were the first living things put on earth. Buddha attained enlightenment while seated beneath a tree. We dedicate non-religious holidays to trees all over the world. In the US you may stop to plant a tree on Arbor Day, or Dia Da Árvore in Brazil, Nationale Bloomplantdag in the Netherlands, Tag de Baumes in Germany, or Van Mahotsava in India.

We are globally united with acceptance of the significance a tree planting carries, no matter what life perspective we bring to it.

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Family mulching a tree in Schenley Park to celebrate Veda.

I am often asked what the “ceremony” in the Commemorative Tree Planting Program entails. I can tell you that every single one is different. I am always there, along with Phil (our resident arborist and Parks Management and Maintenance Director) or one of our ecologists. We plant a fairly large tree (approximately 2” caliper) that has been transplanted from a local tree farm or nursery. The type of tree and exact planting location is arranged in advance based on the donor’s wishes. Sometimes large groups come to be a part of it (I’ve seen as many as 30) and other times it is just the donor. There have been groups who want to get in and get their hands dirty and others where they stand back and enjoy the tree once it is planted. Songs have been sung, prayers read, and violins played. It really can be anything you want it to be.

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Kathleen and Phil with their work boots ready at a planting day.

I have watched grief-stricken families approach us along a slope in Schenley Park, their faces worn with loss and exhaustion. Once the tree is in the ground they all leave a little lighter. They will see this tree again and watch it live and grow. We celebrate the endeavors of life too. I have seen a sapling transform into a monument to accomplishments large and small as the last bit of dirt is thrown. People change before our eyes – filled with new gratitude, or comfort and resilience. It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be a part of that.

Any reason to celebrate is a reason to plant a tree. I visit the trees I have helped plant and believe firmly that each tree lives in the spirit in which it was planted. They are living totems to the struggles and joys of our lives. And as if that were not gift enough, they will continue to serve our community for generations to come.

Kathleen Gaines, Manager of Individual Giving

Learn more about planting a tree for a special person or occasion in your life by clicking here. You can also contact Kathleen by email (kgaines@pittsburghparks.org) or by phone (412-682-7275) to talk about commemorative tree plantings.

Let’s Talk About Parks

Let’s Talk About Parks

When my brothers and I were kids, the first person to reach the morning news would claw their way to the cartoons section, grab a bowl of cereal, and post up on the corner of the couch. Tough luck to the next one of us that tried to pry them away from their comics; might as well grab another bowl of sugary cereal and wait for your turn in line. (Which could take quite a while; there are seven of us.)

Starting last month, there’s another section of the newspaper that kids can squabble over (or share, if they’re a little more civil than my family). Every other Tuesday, we have a special section for our younger park pals: Let’s Talk About Parks. In it are tips to identify park life, explore trails, play and learn in the natural world. (Don’t tell the young ones, but adults can also read this section, too.) Here’s a bit of what we’ve shared so far:

Amphibians

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Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator/professional frog catcher.

 

The wetlands and ponds in the parks (we recommend the seasonal pools in Highland Park) create excellent habitat for frogs. Here are some commons ones that you can see and hear:

  • Spring peepers. You can hear for their raucous nocturnal singing after spring and summer storms.
  • American bullfrogs. Spot these big hoppers during the day, Chances are, they’ll see you before you see them and dive into any nearby water.
  • American toads. Found in damp, cool areas of the woodland floor where their coloring — brown to gray accented by spots and warts — provides excellent camouflage. Find these amphibians deeper in the parks.

Salmanders are always looking for the best rock or downed tree to hide under. Students in our Young Naturalists program this year studied salamander habitat by laying out wooden boards in the woods, turning them over once a week to see what had started living there.

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Do not touch the salamanders! Sincerely, the Young Naturalists.

When looking for salamanders, carefully turn rocks and logs over, being sure to put them gently back in place when you’re done. If you find a salamander, don’t touch it! Salamander skin is sensitive, even a small amount of handling can harm or kill them. Northern dusky and red back salamanders are especially common species in our area.

With winter approaching, amphibians will soon go into hibernation. Green frogs will stay at the bottom of ponds or streams, while wood frogs, distinguishable by a black mask around their eyes, hide in the leaf-litter before entering a semi-frozen state until spring. If you find one of these “frogsicles” in the winter, they will appear to be dead. But don’t be fooled; their bodies manufacture an anti-freeze to protect their internal organs until warm weather returns.

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Young Naturalists flipping over boards in Frick Park to observe what creatures live there. Boards were purposely set up over five weeks to survey forest floor habitat.

Fall flowers

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Goldenrod in Highland Park. Photo by Melissa McMasters.

While we’ve had to bid a fond farewell to summer wildflowers, fall has its own impressive display of flowery color and texture. Here are some that you can spot on just a short walk through Schenley Park:

  • Goldenrod. Growing extra tall in the meadow at the Bartlett Street Playground, this hardy yellow flower is often confused with ragweed, a common cause of pollen allergies.
  • White wood asters and purple New England asters. Sprinkled among the meadow grasses, these plants produce clouds of delicately fringed flowers atop thin dark stems. Asters provide nectar for butterflies and other pollinators, as well as seeds for songbirds after their bloom is completed.
Purple aster plus pollinator. Photo by Melissa McMasters

Purple aster plus pollinator. Photo by Melissa McMasters

  • Obedient plant. This spikey plant is distinguished by clusters of pink tube-shaped flowers and named because its individual flowers can be bent in any direction and will stay in that position “obediently.”
  • Snakeroot. Found in the shade of the woodland on the Panther Hollow Trail, Snakeroot’s dark green leaves are contrasted by puffy white flowers that are fuzzy to the touch.
  • Pokeweed. This plant can reach heights of 10 feet and is adorned with clusters of reddish-purple berries.
  • White Baneberry or Doll’s Eyes. Identify this plant by its white berries with a black center.
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Pokeweed in Schenley Park

Learn more about exploring and discovering your parks through the bi-weekly “Let’s Talk About Parks” segment in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The next feature, set to print September 23rd, features biking in Frick Park!

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy

Pardon the Dust: Park Projects in Progress

Pardon the Dust: Park Projects in Progress

The new Frick Environmental Center

Back in 2002, fire consumed the much-loved Frick Environmental Center, the learning space that welcomed families and park-goers at the Beechwood Boulevard entrance of Frick Park. This week, twelve years (almost to the day!) after that fire, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, in collaboration with the City of Pittsburgh, brought in the hard hats to begin phase one of construction of the new Center.

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Hats off for the rebuilding of the Frick Environmental Center!

The new Environmental Center, to occupy the very same footprint of the old, burnt Center, will be filled to the brim with the awesome spirit of learning that our education staff inspires in everyone who visits the park. Built on a foundation of community input, the design of the new Center works in tandem with its woody setting, incorporating state-of-the-art sustainability design to soften its impact on the land. The building will:

  • Meet Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum standards.
  • Use 40% less energy than a typical building of its size in the northeast.
  • Power all electrical systems via solar panels.
  • Filter and treat all wastewater before releasing it naturally on site.
  • Be constructed using materials that are produced locally (whenever possible) and safe for both humans and the environment.
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First grade summer campers planted flowers to make the temporary trailers they currently use for indoor camp time a little homier.

We will be posting regular project updates on our website and marking any trail closures around the site as they happen. For general information on the project, we invite you to read our Frequently Asked Questions page and explore our website.

While we work on this exciting project, we will still be teaching hundreds of Pittsburgh-area kids about stream ecology, tree identification, and enjoying the parks. Join in by attending one of our upcoming Urban EcoSteward trainings!

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High school Young Naturalists pose with Mayor Peduto on a walking tour near the site of the new Frick Environmental Center.

Schenley Park green infrastructure

Since we last wrote about the bike lane installation in Schenley Park, the Beacon Street demonstration project has really started to pick up steam. After the recent installation of the meadow (establishing itself now), the next step, infiltration trenches, has begun.

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The infiltration system that is being installed between Beacon and Bartlett will capture and hold rainwater longer than if that water was allowed to keep rolling downhill. During big rain events, the trenches will help to sop up and slowly percolate this water back into the surrounding meadow, lightening the burden on overworked sewers.

IMG_4312[1]These improvements — the meadow and trenches — are part of the larger effort to restore the Panther Hollow Watershed in Schenley Park. By using soil and plant roots to naturally filter water, we are preventing pollutants from roadways and sewers from finding their way into our water system and helping to address the issue of combined sewer overflow.

Watch as this project moves along quickly this summer! We’ll be posting regular updates of the Beacon/Bartlett site project on our website, as well as updates on greening the Bob O’Connor Golf Course greens, the next step in the Panther Hollow restoration.

Redevelopment of Cliffside Park continues this month as well. Stay tuned for updates on this project!

Members’ support is crucial in park improvements like these. Consider a donation to the Frick Environmental Center!

Better Bikeways, Better Watersheds: Big Plans for Schenley Park

Better Bikeways, Better Watersheds: Big Plans for Schenley Park

Standing in a semicircle of maps and renderings of Schenley Park and surrounding streets, Mayor Peduto, Bike Pittsburgh‘s Scott Bricker, and the Department of Public Works’ Patrick Hassett recently announced exciting and progressive plans for protected bike lanes in Pittsburgh.

Peduto, Bricker, and Hasset share the mic at the press conference.

The first of the three segments of this project that we’re particularly thrilled to see will run from Schenley Plaza, snake along Schenley Drive and Panther Hollow Road, and end at Anderson Playground. Partitioned with bollards and marked with paint, the new bike lanes make it so that “families can bike with their kids, older folks can bike all over the city, to get to life, to connect kids to their schools and people to work and grocery stores and places of entertainment,” as Bricker said in the press conference.

BIkers came out in support of the new lanes.

“Schenley Park is our backyard,” one family told us at the event. Living so close to Anderson Playground, they’re enthused to see the new lane help them get from A to B in a way that’s safe for their entire clan. The new, protected bike lane (the first in Pittsburgh!) is slated to begin this month, and all three sections will be completed by Labor Day.

The Levin-Boykowycz family at the Mayor’s press release.

Schenley Park, further down the road

These infrastructure upgrades in the park are only just the beginning. Mayor Peduto in his announcement of these soon-to-be upgrades touched on his administration’s attentiveness to improve not only transportation infrastructure, but also stormwater infrastructure — often at the same time.

The Parks Conservancy’s work in the Panther Hollow Watershed is the quintessential opportunity to merge stormwater and transportation improvements.

Schenley Drive creates a number of challenges in the Panther Hollow Watershed:

  • Winding through the upper sections of the watershed, it makes up a large part of the impervious surface of Phipps Run. This generates a large amount of runoff every time it rains, leading to erosion.
  • The too-wide roadway does not serve pedestrians, bicyclists, or golfers well.
  • Grassy golf turf traditionally require intense mowing regimes, fertilizers, and herbicides, which eventually harm the watershed.

Recommended in the Panther Hollow Restoration Plan is a two-birds-with-one-stone kind of solution:

“Create a “complete street” that welcomes people, mitigates stormwater runoff, increases baseflow and improves water quality. Infiltration Berms capture runoff generated by the compacted golf course lawn, allowing for increased infiltration that can support a natural meadow within “rough” areas. Vegetated Swales slow down remaining runoff. The street will be narrowed and a separate path created for pedestrians and bicyclists. This path could be porous asphalt and will include an infiltration bed to capture and infiltrate the runoff in the upper portions of the watershed. Where infiltration is not feasible in the lower portions of the watershed, the stormwater bed will slow the movement of runoff for slow release of treated water to Phipps Run.”

All in all, this comprehensive approach addresses stormwater issues (at least 70,000 bathtubs of water per year would be taken out of our overloaded combined sewer system!) while making the road more usable for everyone.

Before that happens, though, we’re working hard on other points of the Panther Hollow plan. Currently, the new meadow on Bartlett and Beacon Streets is being seeded and will be full-grown later this summer.

Stay tuned as these restoration projects progress, and be sure to take a spin on the new protected bike lanes when they’re installed.

Who’ll Stop the Rain: Green Infrastructure in Schenley Park

Who’ll Stop the Rain: Green Infrastructure in Schenley Park

Big, green things are in the works in Schenley Park and the Panther Hollow Watershed.

If you’ve been near Bartlett Playground in Schenley Park lately, you might have seen some of our progress on a nearby hillside, which right now looks a little like

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Soon, though, the area will look something like

Is that the Cathedral of Learning off in the distance?

Instead of a field of poppies, though, a lush, textured, and completely native meadow will be springing up this summer. The meadow will be replacing a swatch of non-native, monochrome grass as part of a larger effort to revitalize the Panther Hollow Watershed.

You may be asking yourself: Why remove a field of grass? Doesn’t grass absorb rainwater, keeping it out of our sewer system?

Answer: Yes and no. Grass does absorb a bit of rainwater. But with its shallow roots and often compacted soil underneath, it can almost as hard as a slab of concrete for water to penetrate. On this hillside between Bartlett and Beacon Streets, towards the upper sections of the Panther Hollow Watershed, we see a stellar opportunity to reduce environmentally-taxing maintenance (read: mowing), establish a walking path, and capture rainwater in the ground rather than having it run right into our sewer systems.

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The grass to by phased out between Beacon and Bartlett Streets

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A concept drawing of what this area will look like after, complete with wildflower meadow and walking path

Like many older cities, Pittsburgh has a combined sewer system in which both stormwater and sewage flow in the same pipe. The system is prone to overflows, with rainfalls greater than ¼ inch triggering large quantities of untreated sewage to discharge into our rivers. By increasing the amount of water retained in the soil throughout the watershed, we’re keeping rainwater out of the park streams and City sewers. This project is the first stage of a plan to reduce the volume of water flowing through the watershed.  This summer and fall, infiltration trenches and berms will be created along the street. Combined, these projects will remove an estimated 1.7 million gallons of water from the combined sewer system.

As the grass on the hillside along Beacon Street dries out, we ask that everyone stays on the marked path so that the meadow seedlings have a chance to really take hold. The seed mix that we’re using can handle the foot traffic anticipated for the Vintage Grand Prix. Until then, excuse the look of this meadow-in-progress and look forward to a ‘low-mow’ biodiversity magnet and an overall green improvement in Schenley Park!

This project is done in collaboration with the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN), Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), and the Department of Public Works (DPW).

Thank you to the generous funders who are making this project come to life. We’d like to thank Allegheny County Conservation District, Dominion Foundation, Western PA Conservancy, Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and The Pittsburgh Foundation for their support!

When You’re 84 and Live in the Park

When you’re 84 and live in the park, you’ve got to be tough. You’re going to get drenched, frozen, and sit through the sunniest and windiest days. You’re going to shift a bit, crack under the pressure, and start to show wrinkles — all a natural part of aging.

When you’re 84 and live in the park, sometimes you don’t get the respect you deserve. Kids come along, and they just don’t get it. These whippersnappers get out their pens and pocket knives and leave their mark, not even taking the time to get to know you or your history.

Photo courtesy Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives

But when you’re 84 and live in the park, there are tons of people that have your back. They keep you shiny and clean, put together and graffiti-free. With their help, you have a chance at staying as handsome as when you first came to live in the park so many years ago.

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On a soggy December day, a handful of staff from the Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh were audience to a crash course in graffiti removal at a landmark that’s been living in Schenley Park since 1930: Westinghouse Memorial. Led by Tom Podner of McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory, a nationally renowned art and artifacts conservation center and the studio that worked magic on Mary Schenley’s fountain and the Highland Park entry gates, this training also included an extensive walk-through of the construction of the memorial. If you’ve never really looked at this beautiful tribute to George Westinghouse, we recommend getting up close and personal next time you’re visiting. The bronze “The Spirit of American Youth,” intricately detailed panels, and all of the amazing details that went in to the entire work — just outstanding.

For those of us that work to maintain and restore the parks and their many historic landmarks, it’s hard to understand vandalism. In the short time between when the men of McKay Lodge had done their first day of assessment and cleaning and the second when they were giving us the lesson, there was already new graffiti on the memorial. Luckily, Tom and his crew are pros at finding the right tool for the job. Lucky for us, one of those tools was a blowtorch.

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Starting with the gentlest solvent first, Tom took a couple swipes across the surface of the memorial at a spot where graffiti had literally popped up overnight. He always starts with the weakest solutions first to judge to depth of the scratch or mark. Like washing a child’s scribble off a wall, he took the first marks off pretty easily.

The center panel on the front-facing portion of the memorial was the real task at hand.

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A botched graffiti cleanup in the past (not done by McKay Lodge) had left a large white streak on one of the most visible parts of the memorial. As Tom soaked a clean cloth in that same base-level solvent, he explained the different layers of the memorial — the actual memorial, a clear protective coat, and a layer of wax on top. This layer of wax, which takes the hardest beating from the elements, optimally should be refreshed every few years. (Until now, the memorial has seen many years of neglect. The Park Conservancy is actively working to raise funds for a long-term maintenance plan.) This layer keeps memorials looking crisp and clean. And holds pen and marker inks.

The first solvent a wash, Tom reached for the tool we all secretly wanted to see him use: the blowtorch! The discoloring, he explained, wasn’t on the surface-level wax; it looked to him to be moisture that was caught between the wax and clear coat. By using the torch, he was melting the wax and wicking away the moisture from the clear coat. It started to disappear like magic; he invited us to touch the metal right after he worked on an area — the metal was completely cool. He finished the job by buffering on a fresh layer of wax where there once was a big white splotch.

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There’s always work to do in upkeeping wonderful park places and features such as the Westinghouse Memorial. The memorial has a long way to go, as we plan to clean and repair it, shore up its foundation, and restore the surrounding Lily Pond. On a larger scale, the memorial will tie into our Panther Hollow restoration work as we plan perimeter landscaping and restoration. If you love this 84-year-old in the park, please consider a donation to keep it looking its best.

A Race with the Red Queen

No disrespect to the ancients, but the best time to plant a tree was not 20 years ago. It might be this spring.

A variety of leaves from trees planted last fall in Highland Park. Photo by Taiji Nelson.

Whether plant, animal, virus, or bacteria, all living organisms are locked in battle with the pathogens, pests and parasites in their surrounding environment, using the tools and tricks nature’s equipped them with to keep them in the game. One of the strongest tools in this arsenal? The ability to adapt, to one-up opponents in a constant arms race.

One huge task that the Parks Conservancy faces is shoring up this arsenal for the trees in our care. The founders of these fine parks left quite the legacy, not only in the consideration that they gave to the design and experience of the parks, but also the impressive diversity of the urban forests.

It’s tough to overstate the importance of biodiversity to healthy parks. Voracious pests and sneaky diseases gain a slight foothold within the bounds of our parklands and spread like wildfire, faster than we can catch and quarantine them — even with sharp eyes out at all times. Our trees need their natural defenses as they stand on the front lines of these attacks, especially since they face added stresses of living in the city: polluted water, poor air quality, micro-climates, and human intervention.

London plane tree in Schenley Plaza.

A general in this battle, the Parks Conservancy’s Director of Park Management and Maintenance Phil Gruszka is a seasoned veteran. Phil has been rocking war paint for years now. Since conducting a study with Dr. Cynthia Morton of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, he’s realized that our legacy park trees are impressive in their biodiversity… but that we have to really work to keep it that way. Their study found that tree stock from major nurseries across the country have actually been whittling down the tree gene pool.

“When London plane trees were first introduced to the United States, one nursery had a tree that did very well. But they couldn’t get it to reproduce from seed, so they started getting cuttings to grow out. Then they released it to the trade and named that cultivar ‘Bloodgood.'”

Selected for it’s superior resistance to the fungus anthracnose, the cultivar (a plant chosen for its particular genetic makeup) Bloodgood has been spread around now for about 30 years, dominating nursery stock of London planes. Plane trees bought from nurseries have identical genetic material to every other plane tree — they have not been grown from seed from two parent trees. They’re clones.

“Today, if I wanted to replace a London plane, I can only buy the cultivar Bloodgood.”

But trees from Schenley Plaza and around the park surprised them. “The Schenley Plaza trees were all genetically different, very diverse.” The park trees, planted before Bloodgood started to gain popularity, were much more diverse than the current nursery stock. The surviving 100, of the 200 that were planted years ago, were of a strong and diverse population, toughened from years of fighting off pests and disease.

Then, they widened their net. Was this true only for London planes? How much more diverse are our park trees than trees sold around the country? After polling nurseries from various parts of the country, they found that ten common trees used all over the U.S. were clones — their genetic diversity was actually getting less and less diverse.

Red oaks with oak wilt in Schenley Park, soon to be cleared.

Why has this study been so important? As the Parks Conservancy has taken on ecological restoration projects in the parks over the years and established the Park Tree Action Plan with the City of Pittsburgh, TreeVitalize, and Tree Pittsburgh, we’ve actively worked to increase biodiversity in the parks. Taking cuttings of our own heterogeneous tree stock, we’ve started growing new trees around the park and city in our own sort of diversity study, learning as we go about resistant new cuttings that withstand biological threats. This knowledge gives us only a peek at the immeasurable value of Pittsburgh’s parks; less mature forests and parks elsewhere are markedly more homogeneous, posing a threat to themselves and surrounding forests against the pests and diseases that have shown an uptick in recent years. Our trees are better equipped to keep our parks healthy and beautiful.

This week, a large stand of red oaks — about 50 trees in total — will be cleared from Prospect Drive in Schenley Park. Oak wilt, discovered earlier this year by an observant park user, got a stranglehold on the interlocking root system of the trees, infecting an entire grouping of trees. Left there, the trees are a risk to the health of other park trees. It’s terrible to have to take down so many trees, but it’s something that needs done for the overall well being of the park. And when these trees are replanted in the spring, a variety of new and diverse tree stock will be added to the expanding biodiversity and health of the park.

Wondering about the title of this post? Read more about the Red Queen Effect here.