Could a Tree Top Adventure sports course become a reality in Wissahickon Valley Park?

Bob Allen, Director of Property and Concessions Management for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, has an idea to share with Wissahickon Valley Park users.

“Imagine you’re maybe 40 or 50 feet in the air in a massive oak tree, and you have this entirely different perception [of] and appreciation for the trees and the forest,” he says. You see birds and squirrels in a whole new world, and get a new sense of the forest’s topography as the land far below slopes to the Wissahickon River.

It could become a reality: parks and rec staffers, including experts from the Urban Forestry and Ecosystem Management staffs, have been analyzing the forest conditions near Wigard Avenue, the proposed site of a new Tree Top Adventure Sports Program.

A re-introduction to the forest

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Ed Fagan, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation’s Director of Development, sees the possible project as a good opportunity for the park as well as its human users.

“It’s another way of engaging people in the natural land,” he says of Tree Top Adventure courses, which make users “more aware of some of the stewardship needs and opportunities” of the outdoors.

The Tree Top Adventure course parks and rec ultimately envisions might cover about an acre and a half of the park, set in about five acres of specially maintained forest.

“It’s an interesting way of promoting the health of the forest in the particular area,” Fagan says, explaining that in its research into existing Tree Top Adventure operators, parks and rec discovered scrupulous land management tactics, including the removal of invasive species, the planting of native-growth understory layers, and careful monitoring of the trees. 

Zip-lining need not apply

As locals have gotten wind of the project and worried about the commercial and environmental impact of a walk-up zip-lining course, Allen is anxious to dispel misconceptions about the project.

“People have the idea that this a place where you can spend a few minutes zipping down a metal line from tree to tree or tree to ground,” he says. But this will be a two to three-hour experience that must be booked in advance, preventing overcrowding on the course. 

While parks and rec hopes to ultimately have a few different age-appropriate courses, including one just above the ground for kids as young as four, the adult adventure will involve moving from station to station in the treetops, requiring some physical skill, and, as Allen puts it, “a certain amount of tenacity and keeping your wits about you, and having fun up in the trees for two to three hours.”

No wounds for Wissahickon trees

Allen also cites worries about existing zip-lining courses elsewhere that depend on platforms and gear that injure trees with their bolts. He and Fagan emphasize that any treetop platform in Wissahickon Valley Park would be built by hand as a removable, adjustable vise, girding the tree instead of piercing it, regularly inspected by both the sports operator’s arborist and parks and rec’s own.

“This is very carefully done in an environmentally sensitive manner,” Allen adds. “We’ve done our homework.”

Fagan would also assure park users that the proposed course would not restrict access to existing trails, and that the land underneath the course would be open to the general public, including on-the-ground companions of the adventurers.

Finding an operator

While the parks and rec department has been studying the possibility of a treetop course for about 18 months, they have yet to solicit proposals from potential operators. That process would begin with a “pre-proposal meeting” (several days after the original Request for Proposal is published through the parks and rec and the City of Philadelphia websites), at which prospective operators would get acquainted with the site and parks and rec needs.

Once the proposals are submitted, the parks and rec department would begin an evaluation process including environmental staffers, business specialists, and members of the Philadelphia Parks and Rec Procurement Department, Office of Economic Opportunity, and Law Department.

But Allen notes that this process still lies in the future. “We’re really at the stage of engaging the community to see whether it’s something of interest,” he says.

Ultimately, choosing an operator won’t be a factor of potential profit only. According to Allen, parks and rec won’t necessarily select the vendor that offers the most revenue to the city, but the one “who has the capacity to perform and operate the way the city would like to structure the concession,” taking into account environmental sustainability as well as questions of access for all, not just those who can afford the estimated $35-$55 ticket price.

The treetops’ bottom line

Financial questions are sure to pop up among those parks and rec faces from the community if and when the project moves forward.

Studies of similarly-scaled operators suggest that a Tree Top Adventure course could generate as much as $50,000 annually in concession fees for the city, but that figure would vary according to many factors, including an operator’s up-front investment (which could top $500,000), staffer wages and other operating costs.

Allen says any money earned through the program would be re-invested in maintaining environmental programs in the Wissahickon Valley.

From screens to trees

The value of getting more residents out into Philadelphia’s forest appeals to Philadelphia Parks and Rec Concessions Manager Marc Wilken.

“It’s about bringing kids into the forest, into the ecosystem…and getting a greater understanding of what’s available in the woods,” he says, noting that the activity could appeal particularly to the “hard-to-capture” teenage demographic addicted to their screens.

“It really is a game-changer for us, as far as bringing them into the forest,” Wilken says of the proposed program.

Community response

“There’s always some impact to the forest when human beings enter it and do things in it,” Allen admits, “but this is about as close to being environmentally perfect as we can find for any activity they have in the park.”

Even after any misconceptions about the project have been addressed, it’s not guaranteed that everyone will be on board.

“There’ll always be a group that just doesn’t want things to change, and we’re not trying to force a change,” Allen says. “We would look to accommodate any concerns that are out there if the community wants to do this.”

To that end, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation is hosting an open community meeting at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education on Wednesday, March 27, from 6:30 to 8 pm. The session will include an overview of the proposed project, and an opportunity for questions and feedback.

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