With more than 1,700 acres of park land under our care, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy relies heavily on volunteers to assist with everything from planting trees to educating other park users. Two of our most dedicated volunteers are Michelle and Dave Panasiuk, who not only serve as Urban EcoStewards in Panther Hollow, but lead the popular Schenley Park Walks in the Woods. We asked them to share their thoughts on stewardship, hiking, and why Mary Schenley would be today’s tabloid cover girl.
How did you first get involved with the Parks Conservancy?
Michelle: We started leading urban hikes for Venture Outdoors in 2008, and the more we learned about the parks, the more excited we got. We wanted to get others excited about them too, so in 2009 we volunteered to be docents for the Walks in the Woods program.
And that led to becoming EcoStewards?
Dave: Yes—we were already familiar with park history, but once we started coming to the Parks Conservancy’s programs we became interested in the ecological aspect as well. We came to the EcoSteward trainings and learned so much. Phil’s tree ID walks are the greatest thing ever—the trees are so different from season to season, but he shows you how to identify them no matter what time of year it is.
Why did you choose Schenley Park as the focus of your volunteer work?
Michelle: When we were walking through the park, we fell in love with the tufa bridges and with the stone bridges along the Hollow Run Trail. We’d like to be EcoStewards there after that trail is restored later this year. We’re currently working near the tufa bridge by the Bartlett Street entrance.
Dave: The park also has a great history that we love sharing with people on our walks. We always start off with the story of Mary Schenley eloping from her boarding school, and everyone giggles.
Michelle: You know they had to close her boarding school because all the other parents were afraid their teenage daughters would run off with older men. She was really scandalous in her time!
What has it been like working on your EcoSteward site?
Dave: Invasives galore!
Michelle: Our problem has mostly been vines. Once we started getting rid of them, we realized how much they were covering. The vines really masked how steep our hillside was, and we started sliding down it! We’ve also removed burdock, garlic mustard, and some Norway maple.
Why is park stewardship a valuable way to spend your time?
Dave: These aren’t just forests; they’re urban parks. They have limited acreage, so you can’t just lose a little piece of these parks. They have to be maintained. If we don’t care for every part of them, we won’t be able to enjoy them. Schenley Park has more to offer than playing golf and running around the Oval.
How do you make Walks in the Woods interesting?
Michelle: We’ve really been excited to put the history and the ecology together since becoming EcoStewards. People are interested in both. We try to put things in context; for example, most people don’t know that two of the three oldest buildings in Pittsburgh (the Neill Log House and Martin’s Cabin) are in Schenley Park. And it’s amazing how many people haven’t seen Panther Hollow Lake until we cross the bridge and point it out.
Do you spend time in any of the other parks?
Michelle: We love Riverview Park. It’s the smallest of the regional parks but has more miles of trails than any other. You can really feel like you’re completely away from the city when you’re there.
What makes Schenley Park special?
Dave: Schenley Park connects with everywhere—you can come in from the Eliza Furnace Trail and make your way into Oakland. You can see everything from the Panther Hollow Bridge—the center of education and medicine, a metropolitan downtown… Plus, if you haven’t seen the sunset from the Overlook, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s one of the best urban sunsets you’ll ever see.
Walks in the Woods will return this summer. Watch www.pittsburghparks.org/walks-in-the-woods for the schedule!