PITTSBURGH – Five environmental specialists stepped out of their red government van, changing their sandals and Crocs into hiking and muck boots.
“Oh, I’m so stiff,” said Aimee McLaughlin, one of two biologists in the group. She stretched her legs and back from the nearly three-hour van ride. The team, a group of environmental and cultural specialists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, had carpooled together to visit a trail path proposal at Tionesta Lake in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“I brought bug spray if anyone needs it,” McLaughlin offered. “And cheese sticks.”
It was the second or third time McLaughlin had offered the cheese sticks. She is the mother of a three-year-old son who does not eat nearly enough cheese sticks as they pile up in her fridge, so she brought extra to share with her colleagues.
Someone else offered protein bars and handed out maps to review their route. The group had come prepared, armed with enough insect repellant, snacks, water, tools, and shovels to venture into the trail.
McLaughlin opened the trunk slowly, revealing a wall of backpacks and field gear stacked on top of one another like carefully balanced Jenga blocks. A shovel fell out, but everything else remained in place.
Besides the two biologists, the team included a cultural resource specialist, a community planner, and a resource specialist. They grabbed their vests, notebooks, and tools while juggling sandwiches and finger food, knowing they would trek through the deep woods of Tionesta Lake without an official lunch break.
The environmental group met with a team of park rangers who offered to guide them through the trail. They checked maps once more and pierced into the thick woods, taking turns to hold twigs and tree branches so the next person behind would not get whipped in the face.
“Watch your step on that drop,” someone said.
The path lay scattered with logs and uneven terrain. It was not an official hiking trail, and it would take some work to prepare it for recreational use. A local trail association had requested to reroute part of the North Country Trail through here, which would navigate through Tionesta’s federal lands. A local volunteer group that partners with the National Park Service Trail manages the trail.
“The current trail goes along a road, and the volunteers want to relocate it for the safety and interest of their hikers. It gives us the chance to show off some of our forests and cultural resources,” said Bobbi Jo McClain, the chief of the Environmental and Cultural Resources Section.
The Pittsburgh District’s environmental team came to inspect the trail proposal to ensure it would not affect wetlands or any cultural sites. The trail crossed a few minor streams and snaked along the archaeological remains of an old sawmill. The environmental team frequently stopped to dig up soil, sample it, measure wet gaps, jot notes, and take photos.
“Whenever a project proposal comes to us, one of the first things we do is work to ensure that the project avoids or minimizes impacts to streams and wetlands to the greatest extent possible,” said Kristina Schultz, a biologist with the Pittsburgh District.
The team took the notes and samples they needed within a few hours. They crammed back into the van and returned to Pittsburgh, spending six hours in a van for a three-hour visit. Yet not every project they inspect involves such a straightforward visit. For much larger, more complex construction projects, the Pittsburgh District spends months, if not years, deep in planning and research.
“We try to find that balance between meeting our mission of developing structures that serve people and doing it in a way that protects the environment,” McClain said.
The environmental team is critical to each project phase to help move it forward without unexpected consequences or costs. The section falls under the planning branch, which studies the feasibility of each project to ensure it is worth each taxpayer dollar and it abides by environmental laws.
Larger projects require a broad view, looking beyond how construction may change an area now and well into the future. Planners look at years down the road and sometimes miles downstream to avoid adverse effects elsewhere.
The Pittsburgh District has a rich history of constructing dams and massive water elevators known as river locks. These concrete structures take time. Years of planning and studies can seem to slow down progress, but ultimately, it helps save unforeseen costs and damage to the ecosystem around a project.
“We do our homework so we can avoid impacting important resources for the public, and we help avoid causing harm to endangered species,” Schultz said.
Besides biologists and environmental specialists, the team includes physical scientists, environmental engineers, archaeologists, a tribal liaison, and a historian. Part of their mission includes protecting locations of cultural or archaeological value.
“I love the group of people I work with. Everybody is so knowledgeable. It makes it a lot of fun when you get this problem and have a team to help you figure it out,” Schultz said.
Most of their work extends beyond hiking trails, branching out broadly wherever a Pittsburgh District project may touch, including along waterways and wetlands.
“We are involved with so many projects,” said Marc Glowczewski, the planning branch chief for the Pittsburgh District. “We see the breadth of the district’s portfolio.”
For example, planners and engineers have been especially attentive to river aquatic species in the district. Life in the rivers, seen in creatures such as freshwater mussels and macroinvertebrates, are great indicators of the overall water quality in the region and benefit animals and people.
The Pittsburgh District’s planning team comes up with solutions to mitigate potential risks, whether a project requires dredging the Allegheny River, which would impact freshwater mussels, or removing a lock chamber from the Monongahela River, which would alter fish habitats.
“Everybody on the team comes to us with a different background and a different point of view, which is really valuable,” McClain said. “We can bounce ideas off everyone, learn from each other, and come together as a group to move our projects in the right direction.”
In the case of dredging, the district has commissioned dive teams to move endangered freshwater mussels to a safer area. On the Monongahela River, the district is adding 73 stone fish reefs to compensate for removing a lock in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania. Elsewhere on the Ohio River, the district cleared three acres of land to build a concrete batch plant, and rather than wasting the cutdown trees, they contracted a helicopter to place the trees in the water for fish habitats.
“Every project has a purpose. We fill the need of tackling the most complex engineering projects in the most environmentally friendly way possible,” McClain said.
The team also partners with federal and state environmental agencies to address toxic algal blooms, combat invasive species and support aquatic restoration projects within their footprint. The district’s area of responsibility includes parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and New York, based on the watershed that flows into the 16 reservoirs used to minimize floods.
On occasion, the planning team also assists with projects across the nation. They have worked on plans in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and North Carolina, to name a few.
“Our team members are often supporting project delivery teams nationwide,” Glowczewski said.
Part of what the planners enjoy most is knowing their work helps set the right course for a project at the very start. They can identify an environmental concern years before it becomes a costly problem.
“Our role is to uphold the environmental stewardship mission and to make sure we’re creating projects that have a positive impact on the environment,” Glowczewski said.
“Headwaters Highlights” is part of a story series highlighting the facilities or teams that make the Pittsburgh District’s mission possible.
Pittsburgh District’s 26,000 square miles include portions of western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio, western Maryland, and southwestern New York. It has more than 328 miles of navigable waterways, 23 navigation locks and dams, 16 multi-purpose flood-control reservoirs, 42 local flood-protection projects, and other projects to protect and enhance the nation’s water resources infrastructure and environment.