Once home to coal mining, Hays Woods Park is a protected forest situated along the Monongahela River between Baldwin, the South Side and Hays.
Now Hays Woods is taking the next step. At the beginning of this year, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy received a $233,000 grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to perform preliminary invasive species management and trash removal at Hays Woods.
The park’s 626 acres consist of woodlands, wetlands, open streams, meadows, waterfalls and steep wooded slopes. The green space provides critical support for the local ecosystem such as nesting bald eagles and red-fruited hawthorn trees. For decades, the site acted as an unofficial park until the city purchased the land from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) in 2021, making Hays Woods the city’s second largest park. (The first is Frick Park, traversing 644 acres).
Even before the city’s acquisition, local nonprofit organizations such as the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy have worked to protect the ecosystem while making it visitor friendly.
Hays Woods is “fully undeveloped,” says Robin Eng, ecological projects manager for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “Old roads and footworn trails create a web of access throughout the wild space, but pollution such as litter, exhaust and noise from vehicles rarely reach the interior of these woodlands.”
This suggests that Hays Woods may include interior woodland habitat that does not exist anywhere else in the city of Pittsburgh,” says Eng.
That could mean a boon for a diverse and unique suite of wildlife species — including plants, animals, insects and fungi — that face severe challenges in a world of increasing urban and suburban sprawl.
The Parks Conservancy is partnering with Allegheny GoatScape and Allegheny CleanWays to help with invasive species management and trash removal. It also is working with the Friends of Hays Woods and local volunteers.
Allegheny GoatScape Executive Director Gavin Deming says the organization will review critical habitat sites within Hays Woods Park to evaluate their current condition and perform baseline maintenance.
“Hays Woods has long been identified as a significant area for Pittsburgh’s natural environment,” says Deming. “Bald eagles nest on the property, and the large, healthy wooded areas are essential for migrating and local birds.”
While many local organizations are working to make Hays Woods enjoyable for people while preserving the environment inside the park, it would have taken a different path if the original plans for the property had been approved nearly two decades ago.
In 2003, the property’s owner, Pittsburgh Development Group II, suggested building a casino, horse track, retail center and residential development on the land.
However, organizations such as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Pennsylvania Game Commission expressed concerns about the development project, effectively ending it in 2009.
But Pittsburgh Development Group II was able to make money by selling the land to the URA in 2016 for $5 million. The City of Pittsburgh later acquired the land for $1.
Now that the city owns the land, Eng believes improvements will allow residents to capitalize on its natural wonders, rather than adding amenities and manufactured features present in other regional parks.
Eng says there is a lot to work to do because the property has been neglected for so long and aggressive invasive species have taken hold. Large parks are an important place for respite and recreation, says Eng, and improved maintenance of the forests, trails and trailheads will welcome more people into this green space.
“Based on preliminary discussions with professionals and community members alike,” says Eng, “there appears to be widespread recognition and appreciation for the wildness of Hays Woods.”
Jason Phox is a journalist in the Pittsburgh area sharing important information with the people of the Steel City. He enjoys writing, photography, and mostly comic books.