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Group works to preserve land

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Monday, Aug. 2, 2004

Robert Michalow knew the classroom wasn't the best place to teach his students about bats.

So he took his Sewickley Academy pupils to Fifer's Fields, a 35-acre farm-turned-conservation-area in Franklin Park surrounded by a housing development.

"They can relate to it better. They see it's in their own backyards," Michalow said. "They can see the bats flying around eating insects, rather than reading about it in a book."

Fifer's Fields is one of six conservation areas and part of 300 acres held by the Moon-based Hollow Oak Land Trust. An outdoor laboratory for schoolchildren is just one of the uses the nonprofit trust promotes for the land it saves from development, said Executive Director Janet Thorne.

"Our properties are open to the public. They're a great place to walk, watch birds and have a picnic outside the hubbub," Thorne said.

Hollow Oak is trying to raise $160,000 to buy a 77-acre tract of undeveloped land in Moon off Hassam Road and bordering Montour Trail. If the trust is successful, the land would become part of the Montour Greenway, the trust's primary project.

The greenway is planned to be a park-like corridor of land stretching along Montour Trail and Montour Run from the Ohio River to the Allegheny-Washington county line through Robinson, Moon, North Fayette and Findlay.

"It's the longest park in Allegheny County," said Hollow Oak Vice President John Schombert.

While the trust accepts donations of land in other areas of Allegheny County, such as Fifer's Fields, it focuses on the greenway, where three of its six properties are located, Thorne said.

"They've certainly done an excellent job protecting some properties along the corridor," said Montour Trail Council President Dennis Pfeiffer. "You really feel like you go back in time with all the trees and remoteness of the area."

Allegheny Land Trust Executive Director Roy Kraynyk founded Hollow Oak in 1991, serving as its president for seven years. Its name came from a 150-year-old oak tree he discovered playing in the woods of Moon as a 10-year-old in 1967.

"There was a big crack in the side of it and you could walk through the crack and three to four people could stand in it and look up and see the sky," Kraynyk said.

Hollow Oak was the third or fourth land trust in the county, Kraynyk said. Today, there are about 10, which have protected more than 3,000 acres.

Land conservation is a growing movement nationwide. According to the national Land Trust Alliance's 2000 census of land trusts, 1,263 local and regional land trusts were protecting about 6.2 million acres, an area twice the size of Connecticut. The number of trusts spiked 42 percent from 887 in 1990, and the protected land increased 226 percent from 1.9 million acres a decade ago, according to the alliance.

Kraynyk said he created Hollow Oak because he wasn't satisfied with government efforts to conserve land.

"I grew up on six acres. I always had a love of the land. I spent a lot of time in my youth playing in local creeks and climbing trees," he said. "There wasn't a lot of proactive land conservation going on by anybody else."

The trust does not use tax dollars or government powers such as eminent domain to conserve undeveloped land, an important point in the mind of Jim Eichenlaub, director of government affairs for the Builders Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, which serves the residential construction industry.

"We don't believe there should be public money spent for it, and that's not what's happening here," Eichenlaub said. "These people are paying for it on the open market like anyone else."

Kraynyk said studies have found that sprawl is worse in Pennsylvania than in Los Angeles, with virgin land being developed even as the region's population declines.

"Unfortunately this is being subsidized by the taxpayer. It's not market-driven," said Kraynyk, referring to tax incentives and breaks sometimes given to developers. "When the public is being asked to subsidize these projects for the benefits of out-of-state interests, that is troubling in my opinion."

Hollow Oak land is tax-exempt, but lost tax money is made up by neighboring property increasing in value, Kraynyk said. Also, undeveloped land doesn't result in an added burden for local police or schools.

"Trees don't send kids to school," Kraynyk said.

Schombert said Hollow Oak is not against development.

"We need areas that provide services and the economic base our area needs to survive, but we need open space that provides the air we breathe and the clean water we drink and restful surroundings," Thorne said.

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