It’s a wilderness right now, accessible only by the steepest and narrowest of deer paths. And Hays Woods — in Pittsburgh’s Hays neighborhood across the Mon from Hazelwood — isn’t currently open to the public.

But Pittsburgh’s next major park, at 626 acres, will be almost as large as the 644-acre Frick Park when it’s finished.

Recently, a state grant of $100,000 was issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources for Hays Woods, and that funding is being matched by the city. The combined $200,000 will pay for the planning process, starting with an assessment of the site’s many needs and how to make the acreage usable for the public.

Abandoned mine drainage in Hays Woods. Photo by Kara Smith.

“People think that it’s completely natural, and the most urban wildness in the city,” says Kara Smith, principal environmental planner for the city’s planning department. “But it also has a long history of industrial and coal mining uses. It’s a brownfield. Much of it is second or third regrowth. Some of the trees are 70-plus years old.”

It’s too soon to say what the future will hold for the park, but it’s likely that improved trail access will be a priority.

“There are trails out there now currently but many are very very steep and are kind of haphazard, random trails left over from the industrial days, or deer paths,” Smith says. “We’ll need to assess which should stay, where to create new ones, which to make ADA accessible and which might be better for mountain biking or other types of recreation.”

Overall goals for the property include conservation and ecological restoration, and keeping the tree canopy intact.

“So the $200,000 will go towards the park master planning process,” Smith says. “It will be sort of similar to other park master plans. The general idea is that we want to have a lot of public engagement and build consensus around the future park. The goal is to have a thorough environmental assessment, and cost estimates that we can go on to apply for further grants, and put in the budget for actual implementation.”

Right now, the land is owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA). Once a management plan is in place, it will be transferred to city ownership, says Smith. Previously, Charles J. Betters and his family donated the land, after plans to use it for residential and commercial development (and, at one point, a racetrack and casino) didn’t work out.

Hays Woods. Photo by Matthew McGehee.

How long until Hays Woods is open as a public park?

“Part of the process of master planning is to figure out what must occur before we can open it to the public,” Smith tells NEXTpittsburgh. “We’re going to figure all that out. I imagine it will be a couple of years. We’d like for it to be open as soon as possible. People have used it for years for hiking, though that’s technically illegal.”

Stay tuned for updates on opportunities for the public to weigh in.

“We’re going to do a thorough public engagement,” she says. “We’ll have to see what people say and strike a balance — and find out how to welcome different groups of people into the park.”