An Urban Forest Imperiled

Corners of undeveloped land are tucked away in most American cities. These pockets of green space can drastically improve the quality of urban life. They're also crucial habitat for wildlife. But economics often make these areas difficult to protect. In our last story in our series on land conservation, The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier visited one endangered forest in Pittsburgh to gauge the importance of saving urban land.

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FRAZIER: Alexander Denmarsh grew up in a quiet neighborhood not far from Downtown Pittsburgh. A patch of woods stretched out behind his house. But it wasnít until he moved back into the neighborhood as an adult that he started to explore it.

DENMARSH: I remember turning the corner in the trail, and seeing the undulating path, and I thought, ìWhatís back here?î

FRAZIER: Over the course of the next several years Denmarsh discovered a vast tract of woods overlooking the Monongahela River. The area was mined for coal in the 19th century, and served as a dumping ground and research center for the LTV Steel in the 20th. But over the past half century, a forest has sprouted there. Now Denmarsh can find plenty of wildlife there, as he did on a recent hike.

DENMARSH: There he is, little frog, huh? Check him out. Heís a little dusty. Heís looking for water. Managed to survive.

FRAZIER: What Denmarsh had stumbled upon was a 635-acre forestóessentially, the cityís biggest vacant lot. Itís an area three-quarters the size of New Yorkís Central Park just 3 miles from Downtown.

HARNIK: Itís virtually unprecedented to have that size and amount of wooded, privately owned land, closed to the center of the city, in a city like Pittsburgh, a several hundred year old city.

FRAZIER: Thatís Peter Harnik of the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group that focuses on green space for public use. Harnik says the percentage of Pittsburghís land dedicated to parks is about half that of St. Louis, and about a third that of New York.

HARNIK: Even though Pittsburgh has four famous terrific parks, that everybody in the city is proud ofÖ.Actually, interestingly, Pittsburgh is somewhat on the lower end of the amount of parkland.

FRAZIER: Count Denmarsh as one of those whoíd like to see more parks in the city. He says the dense woods he discovered behind his old neighborhood provide what he calls ìaccessible solitudeî.

DENMARSH: You can drive 10 minutes and walk 15 minutes in the middle of the woods and feel like youíre in the middle of nowhere.

FRAZIER: Its urban location, however, has made the land a prime target for developers. A group of investors bought the property from LTV when the steel company went bankrupt in the late 1980s. They wanted to build a housing development on it, but that plan fell through. Then, a real estate developer named Chuck Betters arrived on the scene. He announced plans to build Pittsburgh Palisades, a thoroughbred racetrack and casino with large-scale housing and retail development. Since the land had been mined before, Betters was worried about subsidence. He said heíd need to flatten the hilltop and mine the coal seam underneath before construction could begin. Denmarsh was stunned when Pittsburghís city council voted to re-zone the land for development.

DENMARSH: With all the opportunity for brownfield development, and all the opportunity for urban revitalization we have and need here in Pittsburgh that we would be planning on annihilating such a wonderful natural feature of our city for more retail and housing and urban development.

FRAZIER: But not everyone sees eye to eye with Denmarsh. City councilman Jim Motznik has a simple message to those who would keep the bulldozers away.

MOTZNIK: Go to Clarion County and hug a tree.

FRAZIER: Motznik was among the majority on council who backed the race track. He says the city has more than enough parks, and what it really needs is more revenue. Motznik says his constituents are more concerned about keeping police on the beat and getting their potholes fixed, than they are about saving a forest.

MOTZNIK: Itís privately owned piece of property, and this is America we live in. If the owner of that piece of property wants to cut the trees down and develop on it, then God bless him. Heís going to be creating jobs, creating places for people to live, to shop. Itís his prerogative to make a decision on what he wants to do.

FRAZIER: Betters, who has since dropped the idea of a casino on the property, has said the development would create 1,000 permanent jobs and about $14 million in yearly tax revenue for the city. Thatís a powerful lure for Pittsburgh, which has been losing population for decades and was declared financially distressed by the state four years ago. Itís not a strong enough argument for environmentalists, however. Connie Merriman is an artist at Carnegie Mellon Universityís Studio for Creative Inquiry. Sheís been active with a group trying to save the forest from development. Theyíve even given it a name: Hays Woods. Merriman says the race track is an example of old-fashioned thinking.

MERRIMAN: In Pittsburgh thereís always been a certain solution to the economic decline, is to build more malls, put up more expensive houses, and that is basically, the solution being proposed for that forest. Now, is it possible something else could be put up on the site, that could provide economic benefit to the city?

FRAZIER: Merriman points out the forest helps curb air pollution, reduces the urban heat island effect, and absorbs rainwater, an important issue in flood-prone Pittsburgh. It also stores carbon dioxide, which slows down global warming. But in a city like Pittsburgh, these benefits must be weighed against economic needs. Amenities like parks and green space can help the cityís pocket book, by keeping peopleóand their tax dollars--in Pittsburgh, says Harnik of the Trust for Public Land.

HARNIK: Parks stimulate a certain type of person to want to locate some place. Some people are going to live out in the suburbs or out in the country, thereís a whole group of people who can go either way on that. We think having a park as part of the equation would actually help a place like pgh -- every city in country -- lure people back, if theyíre good parks and safe and attractive.

FRAZIER: Some city officials agree with Harnik. Councilman Bill Peduto says the city needs to worry about re-developing its brownfields before tearing down its last big stretch of green.

PEDUTO: What does it say about a city that would lose its last precious resource and sell it off so a developer can strip-mine it, compared to trying to preserving it, what type of city is that?

FRAZIER: In spite of the efforts of Peduto, Denmarsh, and others, public outcry over the site has been muted. Thatís partly because very few people know itís there. The forest sits at a high point, so many motorists drive by without ever seeing it. And outside of a few ATV riders, hunters, and hikers like Denmarsh, few Pittsburghers could find it on a map. Denmarsh thinks this anonymity could hurt efforts to protect the land.

DENMARSH: Itís a jewel in the middle of the city that very few people know about because itís so secluded and difficult to access that few people have had the experience and the luck of being in here and seeing how wonderful it is, so I think that makes it easy to overlook the value of such a thing.

FRAZIER: Denmarsh, Merriman, and others scored a victory in 2006, when the Department of Environmental Protection told Betters he couldnít mine on the site. Betters, who declined to comment for this report, is appealing that decision in court. Peduto, meanwhile, is trying to find enough public and private money to buy the land from Betters and preserve it. He says a new provision in the federal Farm Bill promises money to protect urban forests. Thereís just one catch ó the House and Senate have yet to agree on how much money to provide for it.