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Special Projects

Avian Conservation Endowment Supports Search for Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

One of the National Aviary Department of Conservation and Field Research’s highest profile projects, partially supported by a $3 million gift from Colcom Foundation’s benefactor Cordelia S. May in 2005 (via the Avian Conservation Endowment), involves a search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is perhaps the most iconic North American bird; it is certainly the most legendary and controversial. But the North American population of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is presumed by many to be extinct. Although the last generally accepted sighting occurred in 1944, competent observers and respected ornithologists have since then made recordings said to be of Ivory-bill kent calls or their distinctive double-knocks, and shot grainy photos and fleeting videos. But none of the evidence has been of sufficient quality or quantity to be generally accepted as proof of the bird’s survival. In September 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the initiation of the process to declare the Ivory-billed Woodpecker extinct.

With a goal of finding a nesting pair of Ivory-bills and providing incontrovertible evidence of their survival, in 2019 the National Aviary teamed up with the informally organized Project Coyote to create Project Principalis. The Aviary brought in new partners from the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, as well as new technologies, including remote audio monitoring, drones, and DNA analyses. Using field signs of bird activity, trail cameras, automated recording units, environmental DNA, and thousands of hours of boots-on-the-ground, the National Aviary-led team co-coordinated a strategic approach to finding evidence of the existence of this species. The Aviary compiled their data and published their findings in a peer-reviewed paper in May 2023, presenting evidence for the persistence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This is the only study since the 1930s that uses multiple lines of evidence, involving repeated observation of multiple individual birds of this iconic species. The paper was downloaded >65,000 times and was the subject of dozens of interviews, news stories, and other media attention.

In October 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the further delay of their decision to potentially declare the species extinct as they continue to analyze and review all available findings. This ignited an additional spark of support for the National Aviary efforts and the Project Principalis team, as it is heartening what this could mean for the species. The ultimate goal remains, however, the conservation of the species, its habitat, and the many other species relying on that habitat.

Paris to Pittsburgh

Since 2006, Colcom Foundation has supported the Paris to Pittsburgh Program, serving on the Program’s review committee and helping to modify and expand the program to meet the community’s evolving needs. The Program has been instrumental in elevating the quality of historic preservation and design across Downtown Pittsburgh, where it has financially supported exterior renovation projects and in doing so, opened a door to provide input in the design process with the architects, developers, and property owners. The Program has also supported sidewalk activation projects Downtown, including outdoor dining and horticulture planters. Since its start, the program has provided $3.3 million in grant support to leverage nearly $129 million in total development costs across more than 140 projects.

Photo credit: Emery Meyer for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership

Colcom Foundation Revolving Fund for Local Land Trusts

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Colcom Foundation Revolving Fund for Local Land Trusts provides grants in the form of rapid response short-term, zero interest loans to land trusts and other nonprofits seeking to preserve open space and conserve high priority properties.

This loan fund is made possible through $1 million in grants from Colcom Foundation. It helps address a common issue for conservation organizations: land conservation opportunities often require swift action before the seller moves on to other prospective buyers, but fundraising to conserve land commonly takes up to 18 to 24 months.

The fund regenerates as loans are repaid thereby providing financing for new projects. As the fund administrator, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy draws on decades of conservation experience and a long history of collaborating with local conservation organizations to accomplish shared goals.

Pittsburgh Redbud Project

Launched in 2016 with funding from the Colcom Foundation, the Pittsburgh Redbud Project is an initiative of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC). With the help of hundreds of volunteers and partners, WPC has planted thousands of Eastern redbuds and other native trees and shrubs in downtown Pittsburgh and on the North Shore in view of the city’s riverfronts.

In addition to the beauty that the Eastern redbuds bring, the plantings are also helping restore the riparian buffer and provide wildlife habitat along the Three Rivers. WPC’s work also involved the removal of non-native, invasive plants species, and the planting of shrubs and perennials that provide food and shelter for wildlife, while improving water and air quality for all Pittsburghers.

Tribute to Children

Cordelia S. May, Colcom Foundation’s benefactor, was a longtime friend of Fred and Joanne Rogers. Upon his passing, she wished to honor Fred in the city he called home, and at a location where all could be reminded of his legacy of love and acceptance. She began to collaborate with Joanne Rogers on the creation of a memorial that would put no maintenance burdens the City of Pittsburgh and its residents.

Through more than three years of input from at least 20 stakeholder groups and countless individuals, Tribute to Children evolved into a concept that presents a new attraction for the City of Pittsburgh and southwest Pennsylvania. The objective of Tribute to Children is to create an accessible, highly visible, destination that will attract visitors to Pittsburgh and serve as a source of pride to all residents.

Mellon Square Restoration

Located in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, Mellon Square was designed as the first Modernist garden plaza in America to be built over a parking garage. Dedicated in 1955, Mellon Square became a symbol of Pittsburgh’s Renaissance I and served as a source of daily refreshment to the city’s citizens and visitors.

In 2014, after decades of deferred maintenance, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, with $1.5 million in total support from Colcom Foundation, completed a $10 million restoration effort of this beloved urban oasis. The project restored the park’s Central and Cascading Fountains, replaced inviting seating areas, and refreshed the historic terrazzo floor and lush landscape. With its renewed vitality, Mellon Square honors its rich history and serves as a shining example of sustainable urban renewal, reaffirming Pittsburgh’s status as a city dedicated to preserving its architectural heritage and enhancing its public spaces for generations to come.

Three Rivers QUEST at West Virginia Water Research Institute

In 2011, with major support from the Colcom Foundation, West Virginia Water Research Institute (WVWRI) launched what would later become the Three Rivers QUEST (3RQ) program. In 2013, 3RQ expanded monitoring efforts to cover the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers’ main stems and major tributaries by partnering with other universities, presently Duquesne University and West Liberty University. By 2014, data collected through 3RQ played a crucial role in validating the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to delist sulfate contamination in the Monongahela River. Upwards of $3.3 million in Colcom funding over more than a decade allowed for consistent, routine monitoring of total dissolved solids (TDS) within the Upper Ohio River Basin. With this funding, the 3RQ program has been able to trace the impact of different industries via their unique chemical signatures within waterbodies.

Since its inception, the 3RQ program has fostered meaningful collaborations with various watershed organizations, facilitating data management through the 3RQ WATERS database and organizing regular roundtable meetings. Presently, the 3RQ GAPS initiative provides invaluable monitoring assistance to watershed groups, helping them gather baseline data essential for securing funding for remediation projects. 3RQ also performs Targeted Studies, diving deeper into emerging contaminates, citizen concerns, and other parameters outside of the routine TDS monitoring. Moreover, the 3RQ Data Tool Map serves as a comprehensive resource, offering users easy access to a wealth of water quality data layers, as well as information on historic and current coal mining, shale gas development, and more, transcending state boundaries.

In 2023, the Colcom Foundation provided additional, long-term support to 3RQ with the $3.5 million Colcom Foundation Endowment for Three Rivers Research and Conservation. This endowment allows 3RQ to expand opportunities for student-community engagement centered around rural water issues. This new initiative will connect university students with local grassroots environmental groups to address key needs. Environmental groups will receive technical assistance, while students learn the value of engaging with communities and stakeholders.