Pittsburgh Botanic Garden opens, aims to showcase region’s natural history

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Hills ravaged by strip mining now stand adorned with more than 500 dogwood trees, a Bookworm Glen and veteran-built birdhouses. A cornfield that once fed work mules, then grew wild with weeds and brambles, has been converted into a rolling meadow, thick with butterflies. Acid mine drainage seeps beneath the ground, then flows through a limestone water treatment facility into a lotus pond.

Sitting above a labyrinth of abandoned coal mines, the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden opened in Oakdale on Friday, offering a glimpse of Pennsylvania’s ability to move beyond its industrial past.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who spoke at the opening ceremony, said she was impressed by the energy put into the project, applauding the private- and public-sector cooperation it entailed. 

“They are using the stories of what was happening here and what is now happening here so effectively, helping young people understand the impact of our human activities on the landscape,” she said after trekking through the garden’s wooded trails.

Unfinished, the Botanic Garden stretches across 460 acres leased from Allegheny County and includes plans for 18 themed gardens, five types of woodlands, an amphitheater, rental spaces for weddings and a botanic research facility. So far, 60 acres, including three miles of trails, have opened, the part of the garden called the woodlands. 

The garden aims to showcase the region’s natural history, celebrate the legacy of Western Pennsylvania coal miners and farmers — people the Botanic Garden president Greg Nace said made Pittsburgh what it is today — and instill in youth an appreciation for the environment. 

To that end, Ms. Jewell met with nearly 30 first- through fifth-graders from the Turtle Creek-based Human Services Center Corp.’s Kids Outgoing, Outdoing and Learning Summer Program, which caters to low income students, to talk about conservation efforts Friday afternoon. 

Planning for the garden began 26 years ago, and hours of volunteer work have transformed the land. Active mines currently cover about a quarter of the park, where coal is being extracted and old mine shafts collapsed before reforestation begins. Elsewhere in the garden, a 5-foot-deep water treatment facility constructed by Hedin Environmental, filled with 450 tons of limestone, filters acidic residue from underground coal mines, emptying into a pond seeded with lily pads. 

In a khaki volunteer vest, Grant Miller, 50, of Moon recalled being shocked by the sight of a bullfrog near what is now the lotus pond. “That must be a mutant bullfrog, because nothing lives down here,” he remembered thinking. “So much has changed.”

Mr. Miller, who has volunteered at the garden for the past five years, said his roots in the region date to the 1800s — allowing him to picture his ancestors hunting while he erected reams of deer fencing and cleared land for the apple orchard. 

Joseph Pizarchik, director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and a Pennsylvania native, said that as “a former citizen of coal country” he was happy to see smart environmental solutions being implemented — liabilities transformed into community assets.

“Talk about visionaries,” said Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection regional energy manager Maggie Hall. “Who knew you could take an abandoned mine site with nasty pH levels and turn it into a garden?”

Stephanie McFeeters: smcfeeters@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. On Twitter: @mcfeeters.

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