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North Hills Monthly

Preserving Girty’s Woods Will Help Protect Communities, Enhance Quality of Life

Oct 29, 2020 12:12PM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Photo courtesy Allegheny Land Trust

It is a piece of undeveloped land—155 acres in an urban area. Some may not even know it is there and for others, it has always been there. It is a vital piece of land to protect for the quality of life of neighboring communities, both as a place to enjoy and as a space that can help address some of the region’s challenges, like flooding. 

Girty’s Woods is nestled in a triangular area in Reserve, adjacent to Shaler and above Millvale. This land has become a focal point in the past several months as Allegheny Land Trust (ALT) is in the process—with the help of many local organizations and community members—of preserving the land forever. 

Several concerned citizens, including local businesses and groups, started meeting in 2018 to determine how the land could be protected. Because it was privately owned, they worried what could happen. According to Lindsay Dill, marketing communications director, Allegheny Land Trust, they then approached the trust, a land conservation nonprofit that helps local people save local land in the Pittsburgh region. 

“This piece of land is special. It is unusual to find a parcel this large in an urban area," Dill said, adding that approximately 2,000 acres of green space is lost to development in Allegheny County every year. 

“It’s important to help preserve this land not only for scenic and recreational reasons, but also to help address regional issues, like air and water quality,” she added. 

ALT was founded in 1993 and currently helps to protect more than 2,700 acres of green space in 31 different municipalities in Allegheny and Washington counties. “One of our key focuses is to protect land to improve the quality of life by protecting recreational and educational opportunities for generations to come,” said Dill.  

The land now known as Girty’s Woods has been used over the years for a variety of purposes including hiking, bird watching and biking. For those reasons alone, it is worth preserving. But, as Dill pointed out, it is also important to preserve the wooded area to help prevent flooding and landslides in Millvale, which sits below the slope of Girty’s Woods. 

“If that area is developed, the runoff could be disastrous,” she said.

The Land Trust quickly joined forces with local groups and businesses to purchase the land. In March, a major fundraising effort was kicked off—just in time to raise funds during a global pandemic. Not to be deterred however, many jumped on board.

“We feel so lucky to be working with such a passionate, active group of grassroots supporters,” Dill said. “These times are so difficult, and the response has been amazing.”  

Sprezzatura Café in Millvale hosted a spaghetti fundraiser in September to assist with the efforts. 

“We believe that food is more than eating; it’s about community and making sure that everyone’s needs are met. Our background as cooks is rooted in community service, and we figured this was our way of contributing to Millvale,” said café owner Jen Saffron. 

Despite the fact that food businesses have been greatly impacted from COVID, Saffron said that it was not a consideration. “As a community café, we hold ourselves as members and partners of the community,” she explained.

The event raised more than $3,700 toward the effort and included assistance from Shaler Area high school students. Abbey Nilson teaches sustainability at Shaler and several of her students volunteered to serve as food runners and other tasks at the fundraiser. They are also using Girty’s Woods as a living classroom, though they are working individually as a result of COVID.

“Students have picked up litter, created posters and done social media posts, and others have written letters of support,” Nilson said.

Like other local shareholders, many of her students live close to the area. Since the goal of the sustainability class is to learn about sustainable practices and to lessen the impact on the environment, the efforts to Save Girty’s Woods is a perfect opportunity. 

“I’m trying to teach the students how something can be good for the present without jeopardizing the future,” Nilson explained. “If this land is developed, Millvale would flood more often, so we need to preserve it now.” 

For Danielle Spinola, owner of Tupelo Honey Teas in Millvale, it’s not just her business that is important, but as a descendent of the Girty family, saving Girty’s Woods is also about family. 

“It is about preserving my heritage, preserving the woods where our ancestors were foraging, living, and traveling. It is important for all of us,” she said.

Spinola frequently foraged in the woods over warmer months, creating teas that she sold to raise funds for the project. Tupelo Honey Teas is also hosting a Holiday Art and Gift Auction to raise funds. Spinola is also behind a fundraiser asking the community to donate one dollar and then ask others to pitch in.

“Everyone can donate a dollar, even during these difficult times and that can make a difference,” she said.

In addition to protecting Millvale, the community where she grew up that now houses her business, Spinola feels this parcel of land is important for the future.

“I asked myself, ‘What is my legacy and what do I want to leave behind?’ What better thing than a beautiful green space for our children, our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren?”   

ALT has the land under contract, but needs to continue raising funds to meet a March 2021 deadline to complete the purchase. The trust recently learned that they received two significant grants, including a $300,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) for the acquisition of the land, and they are continuing with other fundraising projects as well. The community also reached their $40,000 fundraising goal, but hope to raise more. At the time of this article, the group still needed to raise $113,719 to meet their $723,656 goal. 

“We truly feel like we’re side-by-side helping local people save local land,” Dill said. 

For more information on the project, visit https://alleghenylandtrust.org or join the Save Girty’s Woods group on Facebook. The Holiday Art and Gift Auction to Benefit Girty’s Woods will be held virtually on December 4. For more information, visit Tupelo Honey Teas on Facebook.