Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy has been promoting environmental stewardship since 1985, partnering with the school district, the municipality, the scouts and other community volunteers to ensure that our parks and green spaces are well cared for and used appropriately. The conservancy also offers a variety of popular programs, staffed by volunteers.
School in the Park, a conservancy program since 1985, gives third-graders from each of Mt. Lebanon’s seven elementary schools the chance to spend half a day in Bird Park, learning about stream, field and forest habitat, birds and invertebrates is a conservancy program. And Holiday for the Birds, an annual conservancy craft and education event held at the library, invites small children and their parents to make a biodegradable bird feeder, hear stories, and learn about local birds and animals.
You would think a group like the conservancy, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that has been around for so long and has accomplished so much, would have a higher profile. But former conservancy president Nancy Smith, Avon Drive, says other groups often get the lion’s share of the credit.
“People see School in the Park, and think, ‘Oh, the school district,” says Smith. “They see Holiday for the Birds and think, ‘Oh, the library.’ They walk on the trails in the parks and think, ‘Oh, the municipality does a good job.’ But conservancy volunteers take the lead role in both community programs and also provide invaluable assistance to the public works department in maintaining and improving the parks.
Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy was founded in 1985 in response to a then-controversial community issue: building a soccer field in Bird Park. The sports community applauded Mt. Lebanon Commission’s 1983 decision to build the field—soccer was increasing in popularity; more girls were getting involved in sports and additional playing fields were needed. But the plan met stiff resistance from other residents, who wanted the entire park to remain in its natural state, designated for passive as opposed to active use.
The athletic field, completed in 1985, has not proved to be the environmental disaster the activist group Friends of Bird Park predicted— “A soccer field cannot coexist with a nature preserve,” the group argued. But the controversy did lead to an at-first tense and now clear understanding that Mt. Lebanon’s limited open spaces must not only be shared but also protected. Protecting the natural area of Bird Park, as well as Mt. Lebanon’s other passive-use parks—Robb Hollow and Twin Hills—remains a central goal of Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy.
In a 1985 Mt. Lebanon Magazine interview, Robert Wells, the conservancy’s first president, said, “Regardless of the outcome of the Bird Park soccer issue, we will be concerned with mending bridges and developing programs for educational and informational purposes.”
Thanks to Wells and the conservancy leaders who followed, bridges between the feuding factions were mended, and the conservancy’s emphasis on education and information continued and expanded, thanks in large part to committed volunteers (today maybe even some sports fans among them) who are willing to roll up their sleeves and pitch in to keep Mt. Lebanon’s open spaces in good shape.Fighting Invaders
Conservancy board member Tom Schevtchuk is quick to acknowledge the Mt. Lebanon Public Works Department for its help with logistics and for providing the supplies for the work the conservancy does defining and clearing the trails in Bird, Twin Hills and Robb Hollow parks. On designated days, volunteers show up in work clothes with appropriate tools, ready for their assignments—and more volunteers are always needed.
“Rudy (Sukal, public works director) is very supportive in whatever we need, and the department’s very responsive to emergencies, like fallen trees, but most of the trail maintenance is done by the conservancy and the scouts,” Schevtchuk says.
Interestingly, a park left completely in its natural state may not remain a healthy park. A good example of this is the damage invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed, oriental bittersweet and English ivy can do to native species. Recognizing that even natural open spaces need some TLC, in 2010, the conservancy formed the Invasive Species Initiative. With $5,000 in funding from the Mt. Lebanon Commission and assistance from public works, conservancy volunteers began weeding out invasive plants that if left unchecked will smother a tree, eventually weighing it down so heavily that its top snaps off. Not only does the invasive plant kill the tree, but the loss of the tree breaks the forest canopy, letting in light that adversely affects and reduces the number of plants, insects and birds. And with fewer trees, more rainwater is able to reach the ground, which can lead to erosion.
Each summer, the conservancy recruits volunteers to combat the invasives on several Saturdays. Dates this summer are May 19 and August 18 in Bird Park, June 16 in Robb Hollow Park and July 21 in Twin Hills Park. The work begins at 9 a.m., and usually is done by noon. No experience is required.
Also helping with the invasive initiative (and providing some local entertainment) for a couple of years was an innovative weapon: goats, which will eat just about anything, including invasives. A herd of goats from Steel City Grazers spent a couple of weeks in a fenced-off area of Bird Park in 2015. Protected by a faithful donkey, they cleared about an acre of English ivy, poison ivy, vinca and garlic mustard. “They were absolutely fabulous,” says conservancy board member Mickey Stobbe. Although Steel City Grazers has since gone out of business, the conservancy is exploring other options for bringing livestock back to continue the work.
The goats were a colorful part of the larger Bird Park Restoration Project, which the conservancy spearheaded in 2015 with funding from the municipality. A landscape contractor cleared the bulk of the eastern half of the park; then volunteers from the conservancy, parks advisory board, scout troops and schools replanted the area with native trees and seeded the ground with native grasses and wildflowers.
Earlier this year, the commission approved a similar $25,000 project for Twin Hills Park, which is choked with Japanese honeysuckle. The conservancy is hiring a private contractor to cut away as much of the honeysuckle that can be reached. Then, volunteers will replant and reseed the area, and monitor it for any reappearance of invasive plants.
MAINTAINING THE PARKS
The conservancy partners with scout troops to improve Mt. Lebanon parks. Former Conservancy president Ron Block coordinates the scouts’ efforts, many of which are Eagle Scout projects. “He [Ron] is just amazing the way he works with the scouts,” says Smith. “He’s always in the park, and eyeballs things that need to be done. Some recent projects:
TWIN HILLS PARK
Tristan Long and the scouts of Troop 22 bypassed a steep, eroded trail that can now be closed. Highlight of the project was creating a 45-foot-long bridge that crosses two streams.
Regis Wintermantel and the scouts of Troop 28 installed new wooden steps on a steep, slippery section of trail.
Logan Sund led the scouts of Troop 28 in creating a quarter-mile loop in a part of the park that was impassable due to heavy invasion of Japanese honeysuckle and wild grapevines.
David Deniziuk of Troop 22 improved 300 feet of muddy trail with footbridges and gravel.
Gerard Cline and members of Troop 22 are working on constructing a bird blind for bird-watching.
Bioblitz: An Outdoor Census
The conservancy will conduct a bioblitz in Bird Park on June 1 and 2. A bioblitz is a round-the-clock 24-hour survey of plant and animal life. The conservancy has conducted bioblitzes in the parks previously—in Bird Park in 2003 and in Twin Hills Park in 2005. For those exercises, life science professionals led by Dr. Jim Phillips and Chris Phillips worked with dozens of volunteers to document life in the parks. Between the two surveys, the researchers observed seven species of mammals, 60 species of birds, 20 species of mollusks, 12 species of spiders and mites, four species of crustaceans, including crayfish in the creeks, five species of amphibians and reptiles and more than 90 tree and plant species. Complete listings from both bioblitzes are available at www.lebonature.org.
The conservancy does all this and lots more. A visit to www.lebonature.org will yield trail maps of Mt. Lebanon parks, a guide to the trees found in Mt. Lebanon, results of the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count going back to 2009, and lots and lots of volunteer opportunities.
Are you sensing a theme to this story? Just count how many times the word “volunteer” is mentioned. There’s a boatload of work to do and a job for anyone who wants to help. If you can donate some time and would like to join the conservancy in its mission, email email@example.com. Donations are always welcome.