We’ve Only Just Begun: Get Ready For A Big Parks Year

Last year was big for Pittsburgh’s parks.

All year long Parks staff tended park gardens, monitored for threats like Asian longhorned beetle, taught learners of all ages, raised important funds needed to restore much-loved spaces and monuments, worked closely with communities across the city, and so much more.

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While we do love reminiscing, we’re much more jazzed for the new year. 2016 is poised to be tremendous. Check out these big numbers below to see why the new year — our 20th! — in the parks is going to be so exciting.

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This year, you’ll be seeing the 15,618 new trees, flowers, bulbs, and shrubs that Parks Conservancy staff and volunteers planted in 2015 making your parks healthier and even more beautiful.

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What could you have done with the 6,663 hours that Parks Conservancy educators spent teaching young learners in 2015? You could watch the new Star Wars movie almost 3,000 times, or listen to Stairway to Heaven 50,000 times! These many hours will be the foundation that students will build on to learn even more about the natural world this coming year.

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This year, four fabulous park places are undergoing major transformations. Look forward to the unveiling of the new Frick Environmental Center, the restored Westinghouse Memorial and Pond in Schenley Park, the renovated Cliffside Park, and continued restoration of the Panther Hollow Watershed. Also, get excited for big things on the horizon for Allegheny Commons, Arsenal and Leslie, McKinley, Sheraden, and other community and neighborhood parks around Pittsburgh!

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Join us in the celebration of our 20th anniversary! We’re ecstatic and honored to be celebrating two decades this year, and looking forward to continue working to make your parks some of the best in the nation.

Why not make a resolution to visit 12 regional parks in 12 months as part of DCNR’s #My12Parks campaign? Find a map of your local parks here to get started!

From Fires to Phenology: Meet Our New SCA Fellow!

One year ago, I left the land of cheese, beer, and badgers in search of new experiences and meaningful work.

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Parks Conservancy’s new SCA Green Cities Fellow Ryan, whose last stint was cuddling sea turtles in Florida.

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Ryan leading fearless volunteers into Jurassic Valley in South Side Park.

Thanks to the Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps, I’ve lived, worked, and played in four different states. My most recent stint has landed me in the Steel City. After spending months in New York and Florida, Pittsburgh has the comforting feeling that I remember from Midwestern cities closer to home. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has welcomed me with open arms, and I’m already knee deep in a series of projects to be completed by Fall.

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Invasive Japanese barberry.

My primary project involves invasive species and their phenology. Phenology is the study of the significant stages in life cycles of plants and animals, e.g. the times of the year when garlic mustard leafs, flowers, seeds, and dies.  My goal with the Parks Conservancy is to research when and where invasive plants grow in the parks to aid in strategic restoration of those areas.

Already I’ve spent a significant amount of time hiking and crawling around Pittsburgh’s parks documenting the activity of plants. It wasn’t surprising to find that weeks of hot weather and reliable spring rainfall triggered quick, early growth for many plant species, including invasive plants. Garlic mustard was ready to begin seeding in early May. Poison hemlock started flowering a few weeks later. Usually, those plants’ life stages occur one month later than we’re seeing, but seasonal and inter-annual climate patterns have drastic effects on plant phenology. Cool and extremely wet springs can cause delayed growth. Warm temperatures and moderate precipitation — which Pittsburgh experienced this year — caused early growth.

The effects of climate change can already be seen and will continue to influence the timing of plant and animal life cycles.

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Invasive Jetbead.

The general pattern of plant phenology will keep leaning towards earlier growth as global average temperatures rise. My research will be used by the Park Management and Maintenance team at the Parks Conservancy as they work to control invasive plants. Invasives have the potential to drastically change the parks as they out-compete local plants. I’ll be making an interactive map showcasing when, where, and which species need to be managed, giving staff the tools to better fight invasives.

Using similar strategies, I will be looking at species diversity in the parks and discovering methods to prioritize and improve restoration sites. I will be keeping an eye out for the Asian Longhorned Beetle and predicting the potential impact it could have on our park trees. I will also be the volunteer crew leader for invasive sweeps at Highland Park on the second Thursday of each month (you can register for these here).

The next time you’re out in the parks, be sure to keep an eye out. There’s a tall, blond Wisconsinite roaming a park near you!

Ryan Klausch is from Wisconsin, but his name is not Yon Yonson. He’s serving as an SCA Green Cities Sustainability Corps Fellow through the rest of this year.

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Only you can prevent forest fires! (Unless Ryan is starting them as part of a controlled burn team with SCA in Florida.)

Learn how to remove invasive plants like the ones Ryan is studying at the upcoming Urban EcoSteward training on June 9th. It’s free and open to the public. Register here!

Never an Off Season

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Dogwood on ice (photo by Taiji Nelson)

For many park users, the wooded trails they know and love during the spring, summer and fall are out of their minds from December to March. Long, lazy hikes seem like a distant memory. So when I tell people that I’m an environmental educator they often ask “how do you keep yourself busy in the winter?” My typical response is that I finally have a chance to get around to all of the projects and e-mails that have fallen to the bottom of my checklist.  It’s a time to regroup, catch my breath and prepare for the storm of back-to-back programs, busloads of excited students and constantly changing plans in our active seasons. To the outside world all seems quiet, but internally, the winter is by no means a time for hibernation for Pittsburgh Conservancy’s environmental educators. Plenty of planning, preparation and anticipation always preclude the crazy rush of school programs, volunteer days and summer camps.

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Students study a promethea moth cocoon (photo courtesy The Ellis School)

Similarly, to the unknowing eye, it could look like winter is the off-season for nature. Many woodland animals spend months storing energy as fat, before they migrate or enter torpor (a state of lowered activity and body temperature) for winter. Plants also spend much of their year storing energy in the form of sugars in their roots, stems, and buds before going dormant. On winter hikes, we tell our students that the trees around them aren’t dead, they’re waiting.

The plants and animals who stored energy weren’t just working to survive winter, they were also planning ahead to make a strong start in spring when the competition is fierce. The increase in sunlight, temperature and water in spring is like a starting gun at the beginning of a race. Right now, outside, something amazing is about to happen as the ground thaws. Plants and animals are stirring and patiently at the ready. Soon, buds will burst and eggs will hatch. A new year and life for some is about to begin.

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Our education staff hiking at the PAEE conference (photo by Taiji Nelson)

At the Parks Conservancy, our education team has also been preparing for spring. Our reach continues to grow as six new schools have signed up to participate through our K-12 programs this year. We’ll share outdoor experiences and adventures with hundreds of students from a diverse range of schools, as well as through family programs, like Earth Day and summer camps. We’ve hired and trained a passionate and talented crew of seasonal educators to use best-practices to connect children with nature through observation, exploration, inquiry and restoration. We’ve developed new programs and partnerships while making tweaks to improve our existing programs. At the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators Conference, our staff gained skills from expert naturalists and educators while sharing our own knowledge about connecting with nature in cities.

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Lydia, long-time Frick Environmental Center educator, now a Naturalist Educator with the Parks Conservancy

The most exciting winter development for me was the merger of the Frick Environmental Center and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Our two organizations have been jointly running programs for the past few years, but by moving into the same office space and working side-by-side every day, I’ve gotten to know their personalities and talents. We’ve inherited an outstanding staff and a legacy of excellent programming.  When construction of the new Frick Environmental Center is completed, our staff, programs, and facilities will be the best they’ve ever been. We’re ready and waiting for this spring and beyond.

Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

What have the parks given you this year?

Parks are a present to be unwrapped all year long. As we take a step back and slow it down before the new year, we asked ourselves the question:

What have parks given us this year?

Here are some of our answers:

What have parks given you this year? Share with us on Facebook and Twitter — we’d love to hear your answers!

Thanks for sharing in the gift of the parks with us this year! If you’d like to make a contribution to the work that we do to preserve and protect the parks, visit our website.

The very ‘gifted’ Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy staff