Rich Fitzgerald may be known to the rest of the world as Yinzer Jeff Daniels, but in western Pennsylvania he’s known for his leadership on outdoor recreation, sustainability, and the environment — a record that earned him this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.
People and organizations from across the state attended PEC’s 2023 Western Pennsylvania Dinner Wednesday evening to celebrate the three-term Allegheny County Executive, who accepted his award from Cindy Adams Dunn, Secretary of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). In a video recognizing his contributions, local leaders and elected officials spoke to Fitzgerald’s vision for improving the quality of life for Allegheny County residents and developing the region’s economy by investing in long-distance trails, parks, and opportunities to recreate outdoors.
One example is Etna’s Riverfront Park and Trail, which will connect the Three Rivers Heritage Trail to the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail. It was established on a former industrial site overlooking the Allegheny River, a place Etna Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage describes as “nothing but a wasteland” before the county took an interest in developing riverfront trail corridors. Ramage said the park has attracted people to the community.
“When I first took this job, the term ‘river town’ was very derogatory,” she said. “Now it’s the coolest thing in the world because someone had the vision and the foresight and the guts to say, We are going to tackle this.”
Fitzgerald grew up in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, a landscape he described in his acceptance speech as mostly concrete and cement during his childhood.
“The only time I rode my bike was on sidewalks,” he said.
That experience gave Fitzgerald a special appreciation for green spaces. The county’s 12,000-acre park system saw a revitalization under his leadership.
“Rich loves these parks and uses them personally,” said Andy Baechle, director of county parks. “He also understands how important they are for the community.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, as many parks closed nationwide, Fitzgerald directed the county to keep its parks open. They provided much-needed relief during a time of uncertainty and isolation for many.
County parks have also become sites for ecological restoration projects such as erosion control and streambank stabilization, reforestation, habitat improvements, meadow conversions, and Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) installations.
Keynote speaker Chuck Flink, a renowned author, planner, landscape architect and professor, has worked on greenspace projects in more than 250 communities, from Miami to the Grand Canyon. In his speech, Flink spoke about parks and trails not just as nice-to-have amenities but as vital to economic development.
It’s something Fitzgerald understands deeply.
As an elected official, Fitzgerald has been an influential advocate for multi-use trails, perhaps most notably the Great Allegheny Passage. He pushed for its completion in 2013 and has ridden the trail four times, including trips with groups of government, business, and community leaders that have helped to build support for trails well outside of Allegheny County.
The GAP has transformed the region’s economy and helped to make it a place people want to visit or call home. When potential investors visit the area, Fitzgerald said, the GAP is a powerful selling point for attracting people and businesses.
“I tell the story that we have a trail that you can get on your bike at the Point and ride all the way to Washington D.C. without being on a road,” he said. “You can see people’s eyes light up.”
Fitzgerald’s environmental leadership goes beyond parks and trails. During his tenure, the county’s sustainability efforts has grown from a single staff member to an entire department. He’s helped to implement greener, resource-saving technology like LED lights and solar panels. Each year in office, he committed to planting 1,000 trees. Sure enough, more than 12,000 trees will have been planted by the end of 2023.
The county also is moving toward a goal of using 100% renewable energy. Progress came in 2021 with an agreement to build a low-impact hydropower facility on the Ohio River that will supply 7.4 megawatts of carbon-free electricity locally and cover much of the county’s energy use with Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). The facility will power 90% of county operations.
“When this project is done, it will be a model that we can replicate in other places in Pennsylvania, and Allegheny County and Rich Fitzgerald have led the way,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn.
As he concluded his acceptance speech, Fitzgerald looked around the room at the many organizations represented who came to show their support.
“All these partners come together to make this place better, to make our environment better, to make it better for the kids and grandkids and the generations to come. And that’s only going to keep happening if we continue to do it,” he said.
Though his term as county executive ends in December, his impact on western Pennsylvania will be felt for years to come.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he told the crowd. “We are still going to keep working together.”