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!

If a Tree Falls: Human Impacts on Forest and Park Trees

Forests are natural, wild places. Trees burn, blow down, mature, and regenerate on their own.

At the same time, forests have fingerprints of Homo sapiens all over them. If you know how to look, a stroll through Frick Park’s shady paths can highlight just how human actions have molded one very visible part of the park forests: the trees.

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An eastern hemlock attacked by hemlock woolly adelgid.

Dude, where’s my hemlock?

You could scour Frick Park and never come across white pine (Pinus strobus) or our state tree, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Until the 19th century both species were common throughout the state, but as the region industrialized, lumber companies prized these trees for their uses in tanning and construction and they disappeared from much of their former ranges. The result? The number of places in Pennsylvania where massive old-growth stands of white pine persist can be counted on your two hands. Afterwards, when forests began to regenerate, conditions did not always favor the return of these former giants.

If you do see a white pine or eastern hemlock in Frick (and there are a few of each), it was likely planted relatively recently by Parks Conservancy staff and volunteers. Much like logging these species, reforesting requires human labor.

A century later: Cherries

Though white pine and eastern hemlock have fared poorly in our forests over the last 200 years, the forests that regenerated after logging actually benefited other trees. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is one of these. North of Pittsburgh, in the Allegheny Plateau, it is estimated that black cherry trees made up less than 1% of the pre-logging forest. After extensive clear-cutting in the late 19th century, however, black cherry became a common part of the new forest that regrew there thanks to preference for sunny conditions and fast growth.

The same is true in Frick Park. Easily identifiable by their dark bark that looks like burnt potato chips or corn flakes, black cherries are common these days. You can find a large number of them where there once was a country club (now in the area where Riverview and Bench trails run). After the club’s annexation to Frick in the 1920s, forests regrew on these lands with black cherries. Some of these trees are actually now dying, as the species’ mortality typically increases after 80-100 years.

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Phil Gruszka, Parks Management and Maintenance Director, tagging a dead ash tree.

Invasive species, world travelers

Dead trees can also illustrate how humans have shaped our forests. Since 2007 when it was first detected in Pennsylvania, emerald ash borer (EAB), a tiny green invasive insect, has left a path of destruction across Allegheny County, killing nearly all area ash trees (Fraxinus var.) in just a few years. The evidence is all over Frick Park, with standing and fallen dead ash trees exhibiting the tell-tale scars where EAB larva chewed through the trees’ energy-rich cambium, girdling them.

Globalization not only redistributes products, money, and people around the world, but also non-native plants, animals, and fungi, sometimes in ways that reshape our parks. EAB, for example, likely arrived in the U.S. in a shipping pallet from Asia. This pest, however, is not the first invasive species to change our forests. In the early 20th century, chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia, killed virtually all American chestnut trees, a species then common throughout the eastern U.S.

Trees on the move (and we’re not talking Ents)

Frick Park’s forests will keep changing as a result of human influence. In addition to the risk of future invasive species, anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change promises big shifts for park trees. Just walk Rollercoaster Trail on the hills between Fern Hollow and Falls Ravine and look out on the sea of young sugar maples (Acer saccharum) that dominate the forest understory.

According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Climate Change Atlas, sugar maples will likely become significantly less important across Pennsylvania as the climate warms and stresses this species, eliminating it from the southerly parts of its range. More heat-tolerant trees may ultimately replace sugar maples in Frick Park and elsewhere in the state.

Learning from the past

Recognizing human fingerprints on our forests gives us opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of past generations. How can we leave fingerprints that will improve forest health? Parks are planned spaces, cared for by the people that use them. The team at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is constantly on the watch for invasives like the Asian longhorned beetle and oak wilt and replanting diverse, resilient species of trees to create strong forests that will be around for generations to come.

Kevin C. Brown is an educator with the Parks Conservancy, and a researcher-writer of a National Park Service-funded history of the Devils Hole pupfish, an endangered desert fish that lives in Death Valley National Park. You can read more about his work here.

Fun with Stats: What You Accomplished This Year

Fun with Stats: What You Accomplished This Year

It’s tough telling the world all that you mighty parks volunteers accomplish.

We love posting photos of smiling volunteers. But pictures don’t show the torrential downpours, blizzards, and mucky hillsides that you have weathered.

We love sharing stats from volunteer days. But those stats can’t tell the story of every tree planted or privet hedge pulled.

When looking back at the stats from this year’s volunteer events (over 100!), even we have a hard time wrapping our heads around the numbers, all of the work that you have done. This year, we’ve translated this data into something a little easier to visualize. Look and be amazed at what you incredible volunteers have accomplished:

Volunteers could have filled Carnegie Music Hall

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All in all, 1,800 volunteers spent time improving the parks this year. With that number of people, you could have filled Carnegie Music Hall almost to its 1,950-seat capacity. (Of course, we would have asked for everyone to take off their muddy boots first.)

Volunteers planted a tree a day

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You planted trees of all sizes and species this year throughout the parks. The 365 trees planted could have been spread out, one for every day in 2014.

Volunteers worked on a length of trails equal to the height of the US Steel Tower

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Standing at 841 feet is the tallest building in Pittsburgh, the US Steel Tower. You cleared and built 835 feet of trails, making them safer, more accessible, or just making them, period.

Volunteers cleared nine years’ worth of trash

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Assuming that the average person is responsible for putting out one bag of garbage every week on trash day, and that there 52 weeks a year, you took out nearly nine years’ worth of one person’s trash. You hauled over 450 bags of trash bags full of glass, plastic, and objects that ranged from the everyday to the peculiar on playgrounds, hillsides, and through the parks.

Volunteers worked as long as a 331 Harry Potter movie marathons

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You clocked more than 6,500 hours of work in the parks this year. This amount of time was a lot more productive than watching every one of the Harry Potter movies 331 times.

Volunteers pulled enough garlic mustard to feed every Pittsburgher some pesto

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OK, so we may not have the numbers backing this one up, but we do know that you pulled truckloads of garlic mustard this year (270 garbage bags, to be exact). Enough, we think, to make a tremendous amount of garlic mustard pesto.

If all of that wasn’t impressive enough, you also planted 8,000 bulbs, 10,138 annuals, removed many more bags of invasive plants, and worked on more specific projects in the parks. You also worked as data volunteers and tabling volunteers, helping us make the parks better and better with whatever skills you could share.

THANK YOU, you fabulous volunteers, you! Your parks are in great hands… yours! We can’t wait to work with you in the parks again in 2015.

Every Trees Tells a Story

Every Trees Tells a Story

Every tree has a story to tell. We humans are still learning how to listen.

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Throughout the month of August, you’re invited to a unique arboreal story time to learn about a handful of very special trees around the world. A travelling exhibition assembled by The Cultural Landscape Foundation and sponsored by Davey Tree, Every Tree Tells a Story is in Pittsburgh for a short time (July 1 until September 1), spotlighting twelve seminal trees and tree stands around the world.

The woody wonders in this exhibit are a history book in and of themselves. From slaves to Buddhist temples, ladies’ societies to tornadoes, there are some outstanding tree tales to discover. Here are some of our favorites:

The Ficuses of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story. Photograph © Juan Pons.

Thanks to the Federal Aid Highway Act that the United States launched after WWII, Puerto Rico carried out a massive construction project to establish a 35-mile road along a shuttered rail line. Edging this road (which has now become a major highway) are three remarkable African cloth-bark trees.

These trees, 70-year-old artifacts of the farmland they once shaded, now reach 50 feet in height. Even in their constrained space, they have grown to stretch over seven lanes of the freeway at their feet.

The Boxed Pines of North Carolina

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story. Photographs © Frank Hunter.

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story.

Previously an area worked by immigrants and their slaves, Weymouth Heights is now a planned subdivision that has not only preserved the historic trees of the land, but actually planned development around them.

These longleaf pine trees show scars from a time when slaves and landowners carved, or “boxed,” the pines to collect sap. The sap was then processed to make turpentine, pitch, and rosin. With the careful consideration of preservation groups, these trees will tell the important history of that region for years to come.

The Elms of East Hampton, New York

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story. Photographs © Garie Waltzer.

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story.

The story of the elms of East Hampton includes strong women and persistence. Bent on taking a seat at the male-dominated table of park planning, women of East Hampton joined forces to form the Ladies Village Improvement Society (LVIS). Buying in to their community via their street trees, these women have been the saviors of their iconic elms since 1895.

Working against hurricanes and Dutch Elm Disease (which killed approximately 75 percent of elms in the first 60 years it was in the United States), the LVIS has kept their streets shaded under these massive elms.

These stories are just a spattering of the amazing tales gathered in this exhibit. Be sure to visit during open hours at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Main, or around the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain in Schenley Plaza (both sites show all of the photos and information). If you visit the display on Sunday, August 10th, we will be there with the expert arborists of Davey Tree. On that day, between 9 and noon, tell us your tree story and Davey Tree will donate $1 to the Parks Conservancy!

Feel free to share any wonderful tree stories in the comments section below.

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.

Urban EcoStewards Celebrate a New Year – A Winter Gathering

You know what’s better than a Winter Gathering to kick-off the 2013 Urban EcoSteward training year? A snow-covered Winter Gathering complete with a one-mile hike in Schenley Park! Around 35 dedicated park stewards signed up for the event on Saturday, January 26. The Urban EcoStewards represented a variety of organizations including the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, Frick Environmental Center, Allegheny Cleanways, Allegheny Land Trust, and Nine Mile Run Watershed.

Wintry Schenley Park

Tufa Bridge in Schenley Park

The day started with lunch at the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center which was restored by the Parks Conservancy in 2002. Rumor has it, Patty’s Smoked Mac and Cheese was the big hit of the day! After a brief overview of the participating organizations, the day continued with a celebration of 2012 successes and what the EcoStewards have to look forward to in 2013.

Urban EcoSteward celebration at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center

The group then bundled up and strapped on their snow boots for a one-mile hike around the Lower and Upper Panther Hollow Trails.

Headed down for a snowy hike through Schenley Park

Looking up at Panther Hollow Bridge from the Hollow

Led by Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Education Program Coordinator, Taiji Nelson, the group discussed winter tree identification, soil erosion, and emerald ash borer along the way.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Education Program Coordinator, Taiji Nelson, explaining soil erosion to the EcoStewards

Lesson in destructive tree identification

The day ended with an overview of Phipps Run and Panther Hollow Watershed’s and restoration efforts being implemented in the area.

Hiking along Upper Panther Hollow Trail

Urban EcoStewards give back to their communities by adopting a specific section of park land that they agree to maintain. Stewards receive training from Parks Conservancy staff and other program partners and visit their site throughout the year to remove invasive species, plant native flora, slow erosion, and clean up trash. EcoStewards report to a coordinator, who will accompany them on at least one site visit per year to determine maintenance needs.

If you’re ready to take on your own little piece of the park, sign-up for our next training date on our Urban EcoSteward webpage. For more information, please contact our education department at 412-682-7275 ext. 232 or volunteer@pittsburghparks.org.

Tree Spotlight: Pennsylvania’s Birches

On our last Top 15 Trees post, we asked if anyone wanted to learn more about some other trees you might find in Pittsburgh’s parks.  Stephen asked if we might talk a little about birch trees, so Phil and Erin shared some of their knowledge of the three types of birch trees most common to our region.

River birch

Photo by Steven Katovich

River birch (Betula nigra) is cinnamon-colored with a very distinctive bark that peels off in curling sheets.  These trees do well as part of landscape plantings (and are very visually interesting), even though their native habitat is more wetland in nature.  This is the type of birch that’s most resistant to boring insects, and it’s the only birch that produces its fruit in spring rather than fall.  You can find river birches planted in Riverview Park along Woods Run Avenue, near the Mairdale parking lot.  They’re native to the northeastern United States, not quite in Pittsburgh’s range, but they do grow well here.

White birchWhite birch (Betula papyrifera), also known as paper birch because of the consistency of its bark, has a smooth trunk with an often bright-white bark that flakes in small horizontal strips.  It’s another quality landscape tree with many different available cultivars.  However, these trees often don’t live to be very old because they’re susceptible to insects.  They often live around 35 – 40 years in this area.  This is a northern tree that prefers colder climates, although it’s found in some southern states as well.  You can find some in Mellon Park–this photo was taken behind the semi-circle bench that overlooks the Walled Garden.

Sweet birch

Photo by Richard Webb

Sweet birch (Betula lenta) is the most common birch in our region and is found within the forests.  Its bark is rough and dark brown to black with cracked plates, and its branches are delicate.  Its name is derived from the sweet aroma of evergreen emitted by crushed leaves or twigs.  There’s a stand of these birches in Frick Park along the Upper Braddock Trail along the drainages. 

The Parks Conservancy includes birch trees in our planting plans.  The three types that we use most commonly are the sweet birch, the yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), and the gray birch (Betula populifolia), which is a good early successional tree.