The Real-Life Lorax of Allegheny County
By Madeline Riccardi, Editor-in-Chief
Trees – one of the oldest breathing life on the planet. They stand tall outside windows, provide oxygen for humans to breathe, and offer a home for animals. Trees serve as shade in the heat, shelter from the rain and people cut them down to make paper, furniture and houses. Trees provide people with life, but they never ask for anything in return.
And sometimes, that is not enough.
On July 4, English department Professor Edward Stankowski went for a walk on the Emerald View Park trail on Mt. Washington. It was on this walk where he noticed freshly cut trees littered the path and stood cut above him.
The La Roche Professor of 21 years said he felt sick and disgusted by the destroyed trees. “Frankly, it sickened and disgusted me,” Stankowski said. “I’ve subconsciously avoided the area since.”
The trail twists across a hill that overlooks Downtown Pittsburgh and houses with impeded views line the area above it. Stankowski said he believes that the people who cut down these trees live in those houses because of a walk he took in early spring.
In spring, Stankowski encountered a group of men cutting trees down with chainsaws. “I approached them and asked why they were cutting. ‘To improve the view,’ one man said. Always the teacher, I explained the negative consequences of their actions and warned them I’d turn them in if I saw them again,” Stankowski said.
The men left that day after Stankowski explained that “trees have value in an urban ecosystem. They belong to all of us. Have you ever stood at the Point, looked around and noticed all of the green,” Stankowski asked. “You don’t see that in many other American cities. Pittsburgh’s urban forest benefits all of us.”
It did not take long for the men to forget what Stankowski said. “I do believe these were the same guys; however, I can’t prove it. It does take a certain amount of bravado combined with selfish stupidity to cut down trees on public land. There aren’t that many who would behave in such a fashion,” Stankowski said.
In an article written for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tree Pittsburgh’s Director of Urban Forestry Matt Erb said, “Illegal tree cutting for views is a regular issue. Trees on public property are protected by city ordinance. They are there for all residents, not to be removed willy-nilly.”
City ordinances did not stop the group of men from “[dropping] a dozen or so trees that had just begun to show their springtime buds. They weren’t clean cut and mulched or cut to size for firewood,” Stankowski said. “They were simply left to lie where they fell.
“It’s the long and sad story of America: People with money do whatever they want. And there’s always some yinzer willing to do the dirty work for a fast $50. To cut down trees on park property simply to improve one’s view is a stunning act of self-privilege,” the former University of Pittsburgh Professor said.
Trees play an important role in Stankowski’s life. He said he previously was the faculty advisor to La Roche University’s Conservation Club and with the club, he planted 500 trees on campus.
“Working in cooperation with the state Game Commission and other organizations,” Stankowski said, “we planted 500 trees on campus. The school later eliminated all of them, but I’d do it again without question.
“When you cut down trees, especially on hillsides such as those we have in Pittsburgh, you render those hillsides vulnerable to erosion,” Stankowski said.
When people remove trees from hillsides, sections of the hill can slide down from water erosion. Tree leaves stop excess water from collecting on the ground and wearing down the soil. Tree roots can also stop erosion by taking in and stopping the water from destroying the landscape.
Stankowski said, “Eliminating the tree canopy allows any number of nuisance plants to fill in the bio niche, plants like poison ivy and knotweed. There’s also a loss of habitat and food sources for urban wildlife.”
The former Tree Pittsburgh volunteer said he confronted the men with chainsaws because he could not just walk away from the destruction of the urban forest.
“My passion overwhelmed my common sense. I was angry, and I just couldn’t walk away from that situation without intervention. To allow them to continue unchecked was not something I was going to allow to happen if I could help it,” Stankowski said.
Stankowski’s personal relationship with trees outweighed his feeling of unsafety with the men. “I felt unsafe as soon as I made the decision to confront these men,” Stankowski said. “Unsafe but unafraid, I never regretted my decision.
“Trees, along with dogs, are one of God’s greatest gifts. Both teach us so much. When my son was little,” Stankowski continued, “we used to sit in the woods and I’d point out different trees to him, explaining their value to the ecosystem, their function, beauty and diversity.
“Trees teach us about persistence and survival. Ever see a tree that’s been topped off, with new growth reaching for the sky? The tree doesn’t quit just because it’s been diminished. It’s still a tree, even though it’s not what it used to be. I used to say to my son, ‘Look, God made all of these different trees. He didn’t want only one kind. He also made people the same way,’” Stankowski said.
Stankowski finished by saying that his only regret about his bid to save Pittsburgh’s urban forest is that he told his wife about the encounter with the chainsaw men.
“My only regret,” the city boy with a country heart said, “is telling my wife about it. Besides, a chainsaw makes a really poor weapon. It’s heavy and wieldy and ties up both of a person’s hands. Defending oneself from a person with a chainsaw really isn’t all that difficult.”