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North Hills Monthly

Keeping County Parks Running Takes Huge Effort by Staff, Volunteers

Jun 30, 2018 11:47AM ● By North Hills Monthly magazine

By Kathleen Ganster

Hiking. Biking. Swimming. Boating. Fishing. Picnics. Mountain biking. Geocaching. Golfing. Bird watching. Nature programming. 

The list of recreational activities at local parks is seemingly endless. With over 12,000 acres in the nine Allegheny County parks alone, there are plenty of things to do, but that also means plenty of land, trails and roads that require maintenance. Who does all this work?

“It takes an army to keep our parks in shape,” said County Parks Director Andy Baechle. 

With 3,075 acres, North Park is the largest county park, followed by South Park with approximately 2,000 acres. Other Allegheny County Parks include Deer Lakes, Harrison Hills, Boyce, Round Hill, Hartwood Acres, Settlers Cabin and White Oak. 

Maintaining the parks includes things that may quickly come to mind like roads, parking lots and trails, but at North Park, it also includes the swimming pool, park buildings including the Rose Barn, the ice-skating rink, playing fields, and the golf course. And of course, there is the 65-acre lake. 

According to Baechle, different projects require different entities. 

“We have about 90 laborers between the nine parks who cut the grass and do tasks like that, and then we have our facility management team who are the tradespeople—the  electricians, carpenters, painters and plumbers—who take care of the buildings, ice rink, pool, and more,” he said. 

Allegheny County Public Works takes care of the “heavy lifting,” including major repaving projects.  

Partner groups also help with projects. While a downed tree across a trail requires a park employee to remove it due to safety regulations, groups such as Trail Pittsburgh, North Area Environmental Council (NAEC), and various ‘friends’ groups help with smaller cleanup projects and to identify larger issues.

“We also have a great ranger crew that helps us keep on top of things,” Baechle said. 

Friends’ organizations assist with maintaining trails, cleaning up litter and increasing awareness about environmental issues. Gary Rigdon, a member of both the Friends of North Park and NAEC, organizes a Stewardship Day twice a year. Last May, more than 50 volunteers gathered at the park to work on trail maintenance, picking up trash around the lake and shorelines, removing invasive plant species and removing an old dump.

“Various groups all brought volunteers, and each had specific interests on which to focus,” Rigdon said. 

The Friends and NAEC also partner with other groups such as Tree Vitalize to assist with planting new trees in North Park. Baechle added that over the years, the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy has done a lot of work on the trails at some of the parks in addition to other projects. 

Six full-time and 14 seasonal rangers help with programming and outreach while two naturalists teach classes, lead programs and assist with outreach projects. Scouting and school groups also help with various projects. 

Despite the efforts of so many, there are challenges. 

“You can’t defer maintenance and even if you take care of things, sooner or later, you’ll still need to fix them,” said Baechle. “For example, the pool was built in the 1930s—things wear out after so many years.” 

Regional Asset District money is vital to the park funding.  About 60 percent of the park system’s operating budget is funded by RAD, as it is commonly known. 

“The parks are free, and they are open every day of the year. They are a wonderful asset to our community,” Baechle said, “but we have to pay for them.” 

And what about that lake at North Park? The PA Fish and Game Commission help by stocking the lake for free—they get their funding from the sale of fishing licenses. Venture Outdoors is a vendor who operates out of the boathouse, renting boats and paddle boards. LL Bean also has a contract with the county to provide programming out of one of the boat launching sites. 

“We can’t get enough people out into the woods—the programming and extra services help get them excited about going out,” Baechle said.

Community and borough parks also work with teams of people to help keep them up and running. The Sewickley Heights Borough Park consists of 1,300 acres at the park and Fern Hollow Nature Center. April Claus, director of parks, conservation and education, works with the three-person road crew and staff, plus a full-time borough forester, Nathan Briggs. 

“We have help from volunteers with the trail work,” said Claus of the groups that clear invasive plants and undertake other chores to keep trails open for hikers, bikers and equestrians. The park has approximately 22 miles of trails.  

Claus also works with the local schools, hosting field trips which are not only educational, but increase stewardship and ownership by the younger citizens of the community. “The park is the perfect place to teach children,” said Claus, adding that the park recently hosted a group of Quaker Valley fifth-graders. “They are the volunteers of the future.”