SCA ‘Ecostewards’ find ways to keep earth from sliding away

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Amid blowing snow Sunday in Riverview Park, 20 Urban EcoStewards installed what field ecologist Brian Dolney called “a low-tech solution” to erosion.

The field workshop, which attracted current and newly minted stewards, was one of a continuing series sponsored by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, Frick Environmental Center and Mount Washington Community Development Corp.

The volunteer group’s task was to bolster a steep slope along a new trail with jute netting and horizontal logs set into cradles dug from the soft and slippery earth.

From a Norway maple that was cut down in the park on Friday, the volunteers cut twigs and branches and pegged logs in place using sawed branches. The logs act as water and sediment catchers and the jute snags what’s on it and keeps it from sliding down hill.

In the spirit of the conservancy’s effort to make their erosion control measures blend into the natural order, the group disguised their hourlong work by strewing forest detritus — grapevines, leaves, bunches of twigs and small tree branches — over the netting.

“The highest compliment you can pay a trail worker is, ‘Gee, I didn’t notice anything,’ ” said Josh Nard, program coordinator for the Student Conservation Association. In the summer, the SCA joins the conservancy’s efforts by bringing its high-school volunteers into parks.

Mr. Dolney pointed out several gullies in the park in which SCA volunteers had placed logs in a step-down design to keep water from rushing headlong into the road below.

After the workers had tramped up and back several times carrying twigs, branches and logs, the base of the hillside looked like a huge chocolate fudge caramel sundae and everyone’s boots were bulbous with mud. But the earth above “isn’t going anywhere now,” said Mr. Dolney. “How about a round of applause. That’s wonderful.”

In its erosion control work, the conservancy also has cleared hillsides of invasive Siberian elms and planted native hackberry, hawthorn and mock orange to stabilize the land and improve the species diversity.

“We want better solutions than just extending a wall,” Mr. Dolney said as he pointed out a previous landslide caused by water runoff from a road above. A wall along the roadway ended about where the landslide had occurred four years ago. That hillside has been stabilized with rocks and earth cuts to channel water away from the path.

Sunday’s volunteers came from throughout Greater Pittsburgh. Several were students.

“This is my first event,” said Jen Sabol of Bridgeville, who is studying environmental science at Robert Morris University. “I think it’s really important to volunteer in the community.”

“This was my first experience,” said Ralph Barb, a master’s student in park and resource management at Slippery Rock University. “Our environmental education course requires that we do an observation of something like this. But this encompassed everything. I got to learn something and help improve conditions in the park.”

In his third year as an eco-steward, Steve Harvan of Stanton Heights said that his stewardship in Highland Park has included clearing garbage and tires and helping crews thin out the invasive Norway maple. “Plus I just like to get outdoors.”

“That was fun,” one participant commented. “It was like building forts when we were kids.”

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-12. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk