By Justin Stewart
In July, the Pittsburgh City Council came together in unanimous agreement, designating Hays Woods as an official city park. The decision has sparked excitement about the potential of what the park could become while also raising questions about the future management and conservation of the area.
Hays Woods, about six miles from Downtown Pittsburgh, covers over 600 acres of forests, with walking trails, streams and a pair of nesting bald eagles.
The park, comparable in size to the well-known Frick Park, has a long history dating back to the 1930s when it served as a farm run by Samuel Hays. Over the years, the land’s uses evolved to include coal and natural gas operations that persisted through various ownerships.
In 2021, under former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, city officials bought the property from the Urban Redevelopment Authority for $1 plus costs.
For avid hiker Linda Roth, who lives in neighboring Baldwin, Hays Woods has become a cherished haven.
“You see the Mon River. I can see Sandcastle. And you know, you can see the Cathedral of Learning from here too,” she said. “Neat overlooks. Lots of views of the south side of the city.”
Ms. Roth, a volunteer for Friends of Hays Woods who also organizes weekly hikes, expressed her relief at the protection the park designation brings.
“There’s been too many times where people want to do crazy stuff with it, like a racetrack,” she said.
Ms. Roth is referring to proposed plans in the early 2000s to do coal mining and then turn the space into a casino, horse track, retail center, and residential area.
More recently, a Facebook group page would like for the site to serve as a place for dirt biking and off-road vehicles to ride legally, something Matt Peters, a forest activist for the Allegheny Defense Project and Heartwood, said would be bad for the park.
“They are having a really tremendous impact on the forest floor. You know, they’re going off trail, they’re joyriding around and really tearing [it] up,” he said. “That’s destroying not only the future forest, you know, trashing the next generation of trees coming in. We’re in danger of loving Hays Woods to death very easily.”
Supporters weigh in
Barb Warwick, Pittsburgh city councilmember representing District 5, which includes Hays Woods, is excited about the parks’ potential but said it’s not without its challenges. She would like to see better public transportation to the park, which is accessed by suburban roads.
“If you look at the entire 31st Ward, right, there is only one bus that goes to the 31st Ward, and it goes to just about every hour or so. It is absolutely an area that is in need of expanded public transportation,” she said.
Connie Merriman, a resident artist at the Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media and a member of Friends of Hays Woods, supports the property being turned into a city park.
“The ultimate cool thing about this thing is that the woods are going to be a preserve,” she said. “It’s not going to be a mixed-used development with little park left and upscale housing. It is going to be a preserve, which is an incredibly important thing and such a model for urban cities now.”
Ms. Merriman and her husband Tom, a recently retired professor at Carnegie Mellon University, have been working on a Hays Woods project for about 20 years, focusing on its history and the sights and sounds that make it what it is.
“It’s going to be tricky because it is going to be a park for the people,” she said. “But there has to be some kind of guidelines to make sure that the woods continue to rebound.”
Plans to tackle invasive plants
The years of human activity and insufficient maintenance have allowed invasive plant species to degrade the ecosystem and illegal dumpsites to proliferate. To address these problems, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy secured a grant of $233,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation in early 2023. (The foundation also supports The Allegheny Front.)
Jared Belsky, the conservancy’s ecological restoration coordinator for Hays Woods, said his initial efforts will be to remove invasive vines that threaten the trees.
“So basically, what I’m trying to do is prevent further areas of forest canopy loss by cutting down these vines that are threatening to kill the trees,” he said. “[It’s] the most effective way we can mechanically, without chemical applications, manage these invasive species.
Mr. Belsky stressed that controlling invasive plants doesn’t mean all of them will be gone. “They’re always going to be here,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is get them down to a manageable level.”
To help, the conservancy is partnering with Allegheny GoatScape, a nonprofit that uses goats to combat invasive plants.
Gavin Deming, the group’s executive director, said three goats will spend the fall eating invasive plants on about six acres in Hays Woods and return in the spring to graze another six acres.
“We’re putting them in places that have been disturbed,” he said. “And most of the vegetation does not hold a lot of environmental value. They’re eating it up so that new things can happen.”
Mr. Deming emphasized the need for patience and a long-term perspective.
“We just need to think big and think long, long, long term, knowing that nature doesn’t necessarily operate in the way that humans would like everything else done,” he said. “We have to remember that that’s just not how nature works.”
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is also partnering with Allegheny CleanWays to remove illegal dumpsites in Hays Woods.
A city representative of the mayor’s office stated that there is no set timeline for the completion of restoration efforts and that Hays Woods will be preserved in its natural state.
Mr. Belsky agreed that it would take a long time for all of the work to be completed. “It’s going to take decades for it to work, to look healthier, I’d say,” he said.
For Linda Roth, she’d maybe like to see some trail signs get put up in the area, but her one long-term request is simple:
“Leave it as it is.”
Justin Stewart was a 2023 Allegheny Front summer intern through the Pittsburgh Media Partnership. This Allegheny Front story was edited lightly for style and is reprinted with permission. Read this and other environmental stories at www.alleghenyfront.org.