(Published in the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader.,

25 January 1995)

Kenneth M. Klemow
Department of Biology, Wilkes University
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766


The 9 January 1995 issue of the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader carried an article entitled "Valley's Hidden Masterpiece". That article focused on the portion of Kirby Park between the river and the levee, and addressed ways to "improve" it.

I agree that portion of Kirby Park is indeed special and merits our attention. Unfortunately, I think that the article misrepresented the true nature of the park as it now exists. Moreover, the recommended course of action for the park was rather vague. An approach to "restoration" was implied, however, that is both wrongheaded and potentially costly.

There can be little debate that the area adjacent to the river in Kirby Park is substantially different today than it was earlier this century. The old foundations that exist today, and the memories of many of the Valley's residents, recall a past use as an ntensively managed park. However, that area's life as a park lasted less than a scant fifteen years.

Undoubtedly, the reason that the park was abandoned can be traced to its location; directly adjacent to a large river that floods on a regular basis. When the levee system was built in the 1930's, it bisected Kirby Park into one area that is frequently disturbed by flooding and a second that is protected. That protected area is the part of Kirby Park familiar to most Valley residents, a place for enjoying softball, sledding, and Fourth-of-July fireworks. The portion of the park between the levee and the river was essentially ignored, and it reverted to a forested ecosystem thanks to natural processes.

Within the past decade, the area between the river and the levee has come under close scrutiny by a variety of people interested in nature, history, recreation and education. Its use has been debated extensively, and in 1991 Mayor Namey appointed a group of local citizens as a Riverfront Parks Advisory Committee to generate, through consensus, a set of recommendations for the area.

Early on, members of the Advisory Committee learned that the area has an incredible value in its present state as a semi-natural forest. The area might look "overgrown and in ruins" to the uneducated eye. However, it is actually home to a tremendous diversity of plants and animals. Each one can provide immense fascination and joy to those with an appreciation for nature. The area is still green and surrounded by herbs and trees. However, the plants are not the foreign cultivars common to intensively managed settings. Instead, the park is rich with intriguing native plants like spring beauty, trout lily, waterleaf, bluebell, and Dutchman's breeches. Bird watchers especially recognize that the Kirby Park Natural Area is home to at least seventy bird species that nest there, and provides an important resting point to at least one hundred migratory species. There are also thriving populations of small mammals and curious microscopic creatures essential to the functioning of a healthy ecosystem.

In my role as an educator, I have found the Natural Area to be a great setting for teaching biological principles to elementary, secondary, and college students, as well as to adults. The area represents perhaps the best example of an urban, riparian (riverside) forest in our part of the country, and thus has wide-ranging educational value. While some adults might remember wading in the park's pond as children, I hope that today's students will grow-up to remember field trips through its woods on a warm May afternoon.

Can the Kirby Park Natural Area be improved? Yes; it is suffering the effects of an invasion by a tall herb called Japanese knotweed that threatens to choke out smaller plants. Members of the Natural Area's Advisory Committee are looking into ways to selectively eradicate that species. Interestingly, even the noxious knotweed may have some value. It is prized as a medicinal plant by many people in the Far East, and many of the old folklore claims are now being supported by biomedical research. Perhaps researchers at the new Pharmacy School at Wiikes can look into the medicinal benefits of this plant.

The author of your article ascribes a great deal of significance to the famed Olmsted family being associated with the design of the original park. If that is indeed the case, it is my professional opinion that the Olmsteds made a mistake in locating the park directly next to a river that floods frequently. It is a mistake that they would undoubtedly admit today, given our present knowledge of landscape architecture.

I am therefore concerned about, and would argue against, any attempt to "restore" the area between the levee and river back to its intensively cultivated form of the 1920s and 1930s. It would be a waste of money, whether funded by taxpayers or private donations, and would be doomed to failure. Let's not make the same mistake again.

Instead, residents of the Wyoming Valley should enthusiastically support the efforts of the Riverfront Parks Advisory Committee. That group has been working on a Master Plan for over three years with an Enginnering design firm, using a combination of private and public funds. They also sponsor a number of ongoing, worthwhile activities like clean-ups, lectures, tours, and recreational events. Those activities provide the best way for all to enjoy what is truly a "Jewel in the Rough", the Kirby Park Natural Area.

This page posted and maintained by Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D., Biology Department, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766. (570) 408-4758, kklemow@wilkes.edu.