FORD CITY, Pa. — Earth Day 2021 began as a frosty morning with a layer of snow powdering logs and vehicles. Not even the wind biting at bare skin peeking out from the layers of jackets and face masks stopped volunteers from helping restore and beautify one of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District lakes.
“Mother Nature isn’t doing us any favors with the cold, but we’ll still try to do her a favor today [by planting trees],” said Christian Clendenning, park ranger, as he welcomed the volunteers to the park.
Approximately 20 people came to the lake and spent three hours planting 200 Eastern White Pine and Swamp White Oaks tree saplings in various places around Crooked Creek Lake.
The West Penn Power company donated the saplings and provided about half of the volunteers who came to plant them.
“We’re restoring part of this natural forest that used to be here,” said Tony Honick, the resource manager and head ranger at Crooked Creek. “Man comes in, develop things. We disturb things, and that’s the avenue for invasive species [of weeds] to establish themselves.”
“We’re putting these native species [of trees] back in, and we’re helping to restore the earth,” he said.
Most of the trees planted looked nothing more than a root or tiny branch, but within years they will help keep invasive weeds away, improve the soil quality, beautify the parks, provide animals shelter, and offer shade for visitors.
“Our lakes and parks – that’s where [our visitors] had their first hike. That’s where they caught their first fish. That’s where they spent their first day in the woods with their mom and dad,” said John Chopp, a wildlife biologist with Pittsburgh District.
“Knowing we can help ensure the wildlife thrive, not just for now, but for future generations; it’s the ultimate responsibility,” Chopp said.
The district manages 16 flood-risk reduction reservoirs and their associated recreation facilities, including Crooked Creek Lake.
Every day is Earth Day for Chopp. His job helps the Pittsburgh District maintain its mission of environmental stewardship throughout the year.
“As a land manager, the ultimate reward is knowing we help ensure the land’s health, not for now but for tomorrow and beyond,” said Chopp.
The tree planting at Crooked Creek was just one of the district’s events to celebrate Earth Day. Six district reservoirs held either a cleanup or tree planting event or both, not just on April 22, but throughout the week.
Berlin Lake in Deerfield, Ohio kicked off the week’s celebration early with an April 17 trash cleanup. Twenty-three volunteers came to provide the equivalent of 70 hours of service. They removed 55 contractor’s bags of garbage and five car tires.
Much of the trash these reservoirs see are not from the visitors who come to enjoy the parks. Berlin Lake, for example, is located along a major highway between Akron and Youngstown, Ohio.
“Litter and debris fall off trucks along the highway or the interstate. You’ll see trash just all over the road … It’s not going to just decompose anytime soon. Not in our lifetime,” said James Frost, a Berlin Lake park ranger.
Unfortunately, things like rolls of carpets, bottles and other plastics all fly out of the back of trucks and vehicles. That highway trash ends up on the shoreline, and anything on the shoreline will eventually go in the water, Frost said.
Rangers at Loyalhanna Lake took 16 volunteers on two pontoon boats to collect trash along the lake’s shoreline and on the surrounding land. They ended up with six old tires, a portion of a steel beam, and a child’s grocery cart, among 20 contractor bags of garbage.
Tygart Lake, Shenango River Lake and Mosquito Creek Lake also hosted Earth Day cleanups with the help of volunteers. For many of the district’s facilities, cleanup happens throughout the year at these reservoirs, not just on one day or for one week.
The amount of trash that shows up at these waterways can overwhelm rangers and park staff, said Frost. They simply don’t have the time needed to clean all of it.
“Maybe we can find some better solutions. I don’t know if it’s placing more trash cans around the lake, better signage, or more educational programs … stopping [the trash] at the source would be the most effective way,” Frost said.
Some rangers and park staff devote an hour or more a week just to cleanup, which never seems enough, said Frost. Restoration and environmental stewardship are full-time jobs and an important mission in the Pittsburgh district.
“We want to maintain the health and diversity of the land,” said Chopp. “We want to ensure that the land is kept to natives natural state, and … we keep components of native plant species, native flora, native fauna … Healthy lands promote climate resiliency.”
For that reason, the district has biologists, like Chopp who focuses on the health of public lands. Carl Nim, among other district biologists, works to ensure water quality throughout the district’s borders.
“[We work with] sister partner agencies, both at the federal and state level, to essentially meet the criteria for water quality standards to make sure our operations are having a positive benefit and not degrading waters in any way,” said Nim.
Part of maintaining water quality is not only installing “trash booms” to catch floating garbage at the reservoirs but helping control water temperatures through controlled releases to sustain fish and wildlife downstream. It also means conducting studies and modify operations in the future to help mimic more natural stream conditions. Also, reservoirs can slow down pollutants and help filter some of their release, Nim said.
Reservoirs can only filter so much, and until next Earth Day, it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure trash does not end up in the water, not just when visiting parks, but even when driving down the roadways.
“It’s a year-round effort,” said Chopp.