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Class sparks environmental activism to Save Girty’s Woods

Originally Published in March 2021-

From the Blog of New Sun Rising, written by Alyse Horn-Pyatt, first published by February 27, 2021

Girty’s Woods has been getting a lot of attention lately.

With Allegheny Land Trust approaching the March 31 acquisition deadline to preserve the 155-acre woodlands, and around $32,000 left to fundraise and secure the deal, the efforts of supporters over the last year will peak this St. Patrick’s Day at the Girty’s Woods Get Down.

The event, hosted by New Sun Rising and Mr. Smalls Theatre, will be an evening of live streamed music, a 50/50 raffle, and more to help raise the remaining funds to garner the $704,626 toal and purchase the land.

The importance of conserving Girty’s Woods from development for not only recreation opportunities and to protect native flora and fauna, but for the lands ability to absorb heavy rains that would otherwise flood Girty’s Run watershed, has inspired many within Millvale, Shaler, and Reserve Township to advocate for the purchase.

It has also become an elemental part of a new sustainability class being taught by science teacher Abbey Nilson at Shaler Area High School.

“It’s a really cool coincidence that the class started at the same time there is this great need to preserve this forest in our district,” Nilson said.

The year-long class has around 70 Shaler juniors and seniors in the class, with that total being split into three sections. Around 50 of the students are taking the course for college credits through the University of Pittsburgh who partnered with Nilson and helped her create the curriculum for the class.

Nilson said the students in the class are taught to think critically about sustainability issues, like food production and energy consumption, by challenging them to change their lifestyle choices for a short time and document the experience.

The support around Girty’s Woods, however, was refined over the summer when Nilson connected with Shaler Area Middle School teacher Chris Lisowski.

“He’s very into sustainability, and he told me about this grassroots group that was starting to meet over the summer regarding the preservation of Girty’s Woods,” Nilson said.

It was during these meetings that Nilson began to envision the role students could play in the preservation of the woodlands. In the classes she has taught over the years, it wasn’t uncommon for her to grow plants from seed, and when Nilson learned about logging in Girty’s Woods, she began to think about and research what it would take for her students to germinate and grow trees.

Lauren Powell, senior at SAHS, is in Nilson’s inaugural sustainability class and said the growing process has been “very interesting.”

“We are growing Kentucky Coffee Trees, Black Birch, and several other types [of trees]. The Kentucky Coffee Trees have been the most successful thus far, and germinated well,” Powell said.

After some months passed and it was clear to Nilson that the project was a success, she created a Go Fund Me campaign to sell the trees for a minimum donation of $15 to Allegheny Land Trust and raise money to help Save Girty’s Woods.

“It’s been going really well,” Nilson said. “Some students promoted it over social media and reached out to KDKA; they were interviewed by the local news. They’ve been getting businesses to post about it, and their efforts reaching out to the community have gone really well.”

Nilson said one of the first assignments she gave the class last fall was to visit Girty’s Woods, and she believes that initiated students’ connection to the land and gave them a sense of investment in the issue.

Powell said this class has inspired her to pursue a career in sustainability and she will be attending Point Park University this coming fall with a major in biological and environmental science, as well as interning for the Triboro Ecodistrict this summer.

“Mrs. Nilson has made this class more than anybody could have imagined. I thought I knew a lot about sustainability, and going into this class it has grown dramatically,” Powell said. “Her lessons are so fascinating… and I think she really highlights the importance of sustainability by making it fun for her students to get involved and positively help our climate.”

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