Hays Woods, Pittsburgh’s largest urban forest, is on track to become officially and permanently preserved for public use. Spanning over 600 acres along the south shore of the Monongahela River, between Becks Run Road and the Glenwood Bridge, Hays Woods has a storied past and a bright future, and is a nearly unprecedented example of urban wilderness.
The Friends of Hays Woods group, comprised of concerned citizens advocating for the care and preservation of the land, provides the following summary of Hays Woods on their website:
“Hays Woods is a unique urban forest located in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Flanking the Monongahela River between the neighborhoods of Baldwin, South Side and Hays its 660 acres consist of interior forest, wetlands, open streams, meadows, waterfalls and steep wooded slopes.
Its acreage supports diverse wildlife and plant communities and provides critical habitat for migrating neotropical birds. Six interior forest patches also provide valuable nesting habitat that is exceptional in an urban setting. The forest is home to two species of Special Concern: nesting Bald Eagles and Red-fruited hawthorn trees.
For decades the site has acted as unofficial parkland. Visitors hike, bird watch, hunt, ski and cycle to enjoy its natural heritage in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Like most of the Pittsburgh area, Hays Woods has experienced multiple uses. Family farms gave way to coal mining, natural gas exploration and an industrial research facility owned by LTV Steel Corporation. Power and natural gas transmission lines now cross the land.
Industrial activities compromised the environment but Hays Woods has rebounded and is healing itself. Careful stewardship can further restore the land and water to a healthier state” (Friends of Hays Woods).
Heather Sage, Director of Community Projects at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, views Hays Woods as “a unique and perhaps unparalleled opportunity for Pittsburgh.”
“The size of the site, its location in a major urban center of the U.S., and its largely forested condition—including [the presence of] rare and threatened species and several streams—make it a treasure that very few cities would have within their city limits in 2019,” Heather explains.“The role that Hays Woods can and should play in Pittsburgh’s resilience, health, and overall quality of life is major.”
The land was owned by Jones & Laughlin Steel (and later LTV, after LTV acquired J&L), for about fifty years before it was sold to DGD Realty in 1988, and then to Pittsburgh Development Group II (PDG) in 2003. PDG submitted a preliminary land development plan, which was approved, for a major development that would have destroyed the environmental integrity of the site. Following significant opposition from various groups, including the Department of Environmental Protection, development plans were halted and Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) purchased the site in 2016, with the intention of preserving it as the city’s largest park.
In 2018, Mayor Peduto assembled the Hays Woods Task Force, whose role was “to make recommendations on the future of the land, specifically around the process that should be taken once the land transfers into ownership from the Urban Redevelopment Authority to the City of Pittsburgh,” says Heather, who served on the task force at Mayor Peduto’s request. Jayne Miller, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and Camila Rivera-Tinsley, Director of Education, also served on the task force, which was comprised of municipal, state, county, and community stakeholders working with City Planning.
Heather explains that the task force met for most of 2018 to review past information on the land, tour the site, get new information from experts, and develop a draft set of recommendations that were shared with the public in Spring 2019, “and that the task force sought community input on their recommendations.”
According to Heather, the Parks Conservancy “endorses and shares” the vision put forth in the task force report, which is to “keep [Hays Woods] in its most natural state, restore to the extent possible its ecological health, and to develop it in only limited and sustainable ways for park use only.”
So, what’s next? “A formal process needs to be initiated to transfer ownership of the property from the URA to the City of Pittsburgh,” says Heather, and “the URA has expressed a need to be fully recompensed for the land acquisition costs—which were about $2.5 million. To date, state and private foundation grants have covered about two-thirds of those costs. City Planning is looking into whether the land should first be given “greenway” status—a legal designation that would allow it to be kept intact but not receive any formal maintenance dollars in the budget—until a master planning process would unfold to better determine how the site would be designed as a park.”
In order to be officially designated as a park, and not just as a greenway, a second legal and zoning obstacle would need to be cleared. Heather describes the land as being in a “zoning limbo,” because although it was originally zoned for “parks and open space,” that designation was changed in the early 2000s to “Special Planned District 6: Pittsburgh Palisades,” with the approval of PDG’s preliminary development plan. Therefore, the property would need to undergo a re-zoning process. While there is no firm timeline for the development of the site, City Planning aims to begin the planning process in 2020.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has been, and will continue to be, “a partner to the City in shaping the future of the site,” says Heather.
To learn more about Hays Woods and what you can do to be a supporter of ongoing efforts to ensure its future, you can visit the Friends of Hays Woods website, or contact Kara Smith, environmental planner for City Planning (firstname.lastname@example.org), with your interest to be involved.