N.J. woman is to guide Grand View park project

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Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Ilyssa Manspeizer is the new park manager in Mount Washington. On the hillside below, workers for Eichenlaub Nursery Contractors are planting as part of the first phase of restoring native species to the upper hillside along Grandview Avenue.
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ilyssa Manspeizer jumped from elephant conservation in Zambia to park management in Pittsburgh with one transition: a doctorate in anthropology.

The move is not such a leap for the 41-year-old New Jersey native. She wanted to be part of the change in the way conservation efforts are made.

So much of the time, conservation measures are mandated instead of instilled among the people with their participation. In Kenya, Ethiopia and Zambia, she had worked on conservation projects amid tricky factional politics, where the people had no sense of kinship with endangered species.

Late last year, she was hired to manage the emergence of the Grand View Scenic Byway Park on Mount Washington, where factional politics are integral to the drama, as they are in most every Pittsburgh neighborhood. And like in all parts of the world, the ties between the land and its people could be stronger.

"It became apparent to me that the local people need to be brought into the conservation movement" if species and their habitat are to be saved, she said. Otherwise, where elephants roam, the everyday person might be a poacher. In a city park, he might be a contractor dumping home improvement waste along a wooded hillside.

The U-shaped greenway that rings Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights has its share of dump sites, trails damaged by mountain bikes and the same invasive flora that plague the entire city.

The park, which at 270 acres is aiming to become Pittsburgh's fifth "great" park -- along with Frick, Schenley, Riverview and Highland parks -- became an entity in 2003.

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy provided the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. with an extensive land study for creating a plan to implement planting.

Over the weekend, John Buck and his crew from Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc. planted native species over the first 200-yard strip of land it had cleared of invasive growth last year.

Now, people have a sidewalk view of the city, plus they will see woody and herbaceous native trees and shrubs that will grow to maximum heights at various levels over the hillside so that they won't compete with that view, said Mr. Buck.

Subsequent 200-yard strips, 35-feet in depth, will be completed as money is raised. More than a dozen foundations, nonprofit groups and government agencies have contributed expertise and about $500,000 in funding.

The bulk of the money has come from the Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Federal Highways Administration.

Mr. Buck said the cost drops as the land flattens and that trees such as Norway maples would ideally be replaced by native sugar maple and cherry trees.

Native species make up 30 percent of the hillside growth between Grandview Avenue and Carson Street, he said, adding, "50 percent if you wear rose-colored glasses."

In all, the hillside will contain 750 new native trees.

So far, they include mountain laurel, sylvania, Canadian service berry and a flowering raspberry.

The team prepared the land by killing undesirable growth with herbicide applied to the stems, then blowing on a layer of compost to hold the hill over the winter.

Fescue and winter rye grew up in the meantime, holding the soil and boosting the sod's ability to resist invasive plants, said Mr. Buck.

Besides managing the park's resources and directing the steps as it evolves, Ms. Manspeizer will write for grants, build a network of trail advocates and other recreation groups, speak at grade schools and bring residents into discussions about potential park uses.

Calling her family "Pittsburghers by choice," she said she and her husband "fell in love with the city during a visit to see an old friend."

She was worked on her doctorate at the State University of New York in Binghamton at the time.

She began driving to Pittsburgh from Binghamton every three or four weeks to network.

"The more I came down, the more I became excited about what was going on here, such energy and good stuff happening," she said.

The family bought a house in Greenfield and moved in August.

Of the Grand View Scenic Byway, she said, "It's very appealing to go from urban space into forested and back out into the urban. It's like how we live today."

Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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