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With new Fern Hollow Bridge in place, environmentalists are set to evaluate the creek below

Fern Hollow Bridge stands above a small creek below.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
The new Fern Hollow Bridge looms above Fern Hollow creek below. The tributary to Nine Mile Run will be evaluated by Upstream Pittsburgh and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the months ahead.

It’s been nearly a year since the final touches were completed to replace Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge. But according to environmentalists and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there’s still plenty of work to be done in the valley below.

The Corps of Engineers is teaming up with environmental nonprofit UpstreamPgh to study how the bridge’s 2022 collapse impacted Fern Hollow Valley. The study is the latest part of UpstreamPgh’s ongoing effort to restore the valley, with an emphasis on improving its ecology for plants, animals and humans alike.

“Our hope is that this project results in achievable plans for a continuously flowing, healthy Fern Hollow Creek that is home to a diverse array of native flora and fauna and adds even more vitality to the urban forest that is Frick Park,” said Mike Hiller, executive director of UpstreamPgh, in a statement.

“That would really show how to turn a calamity like a bridge collapse into an opportunity for change,” he said.

Two men sit at a table that reads "Upstream Pittsburgh"
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
UpstreamPgh and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gathered at Frick Park Wednesday to announce the start of a study of Fern Hollow.

Hiller was joined by Colonel Nick Melin, who commands the Pittsburgh district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at a press conference Wednesday to announce their partnership.

Melin said that over the next two years, researchers will “work right alongside UpstreamPgh to survey and understand the environment, to model the hydrology, [and] examine where the ecosystem is right now.” He said that effort will inform a larger plan for how to improve the flow of Fern Hollow Creek and the surrounding environment.

“We've got experts in biology, in hydrology and hydraulics who are going to look at the entire ecosystem,” Melin said.

According to UpstreamPgh, the Corps of Engineers is providing technical support totaling $212,440, a level of investment the nonprofit will match with its own resources.

The study follows a community engagement process led by UpstreamPgh to determine how park users and area residents want to see this section of Fern Hollow restored. Meetings and survey results yielded suggestions that included adding public restrooms and making Tranquil Trail more accessible for people with disabilities.

But the study will center on increasing the flow and water quality of Fern Hollow Creek itself, and improvements for other so-called “users” of the park: the plants and animals that live there.

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Crews have already planted trees along both sides of the valley to stabilize the hillsides. But other plants could thrive in the area too, according to Aaron Birdy, UpstreamPgh’s plan and build manager who will be working on the research.

“One of the native species that is doing well here is skunk cabbage, which is a great spring plant that blooms all throughout Fern Hollow, [and] native orchids that have been spotted in Frick Park,” Birdy said.

The creek, which is a tributary of nearby Nine Mile Run, has historically been home to a number of small fish and invertebrates that are able to tolerate higher levels of pollution. But Birdy said that after restoration efforts, the creek could provide a home to additional species of amphibians and reptiles found elsewhere in the park.

“Another opportunity here in Fern Hollow is to try and bring some of those species that are doing well in other parts of the park down here,” he said.

The study of Fern Hollow is expected to take up to two years to complete before any restoration could begin.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.