NW Philly residents form alliance against proposed treetop adventure course in the Wissahickon

According to Kris Soffa, a Friends of the Wissahickon member who has lived in the area for 30 years, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation officials shocked locals when they announced in late March that Wissahickon Valley Park could soon be the home of a treetop adventure course.

Parks and Rec Director of Property and Concessions Management Bob Allen confirmed in a March interview with NewsWorks that the idea has been on the table for a year and a half. Soffa appreciates their diligence in vetting the project, but said that “the last [people] to hear about it, unfortunately, were the near neighbors.”

According to Parks and Rec officials, the proposed course has no true form yet, but it could involve zip-lining as well as activities that involve crossing different ladders and bridges with rope and wooden components. Participants would also have the opportunity to leap into climbing nets placed up in the trees and could move between a series of platforms that are built around the tree trunks. The proposed course would take an estimated two to three hours to complete. 

The region rallies

That late notice hasn’t stopped a determined coalition of locals from quickly organizing their opposition to this new use of the park. Denise Cotter, who has lived in Roxborough for over 40 years, joined Soffa along with Don Simon of the Central Roxborough Civic Association, Mt. Airy native Robert Epstein, and others to form the Alliance for the Preservation of the Wissahickon (APOW) in early April.

Simon, a Wissahickon Trail Ambassador who leads educational walks in the park, was dismayed by the announcement.

“When I heard about this project, my first response was this is not a good idea,” he said, citing “extensive damage” that the Wissahickon already suffers due to overuse.

“To put something else there, a commercial venture, really I would not consider it appropriate,” he said.

“Zip-lines” versus treetop adventure

Parks and Rec officials, fearing confusion over the nature of the concession, have been careful to stress that this would not be a high-traffic, walk-up “zip-line” course, but a carefully stewarded “treetop adventure” experience that would require advance booking and a limited number of users.

However, Soffa said that APOW’s opposition has nothing to do with confusing a zip-line with a treetop adventure course. “We could change the whole conversation and not use the word ‘zip-line.’ It’s still an amusement concession…they both make inappropriate use of public land.”

What about the wildlife?

Soffa also noted that the zip-line distinction is meaningless to animals. “If you’re a migratory bird flying over, you’re really not going to land near a ropes course.”

“Deer herds are [already] being driven out of the park,” Epstein added. “God knows where they’re going to be going. Wildlife needs to be left alone, especially in the daytime.”

A range of objections

The group’s many worries also include the threat of extra human traffic (up to 150 people per day, according to a Parks and Rec estimate) in “an already threatened area,” along with the possible introduction of invasive species, increased noise, and detraction from the park’s natural beauty.

Simon looks askance at a Parks and Rec plan to install a composting toilet at the site, which he said is not a practical solution for so many users: “It’ll easily get overwhelmed, and that’ll cause a lot of environmental damage over there.”

Word from the stables

Local equestrians also join those worried about the proposed course.

Via an APOW statement, park user Liz Jarvis pointed out that the “noises, glinting light, and high altitude motion” of the proposed course would compromise an area larger than the six to seven acres it would occupy, including the Yellow Trail above the Valley Green Inn.

Jarvis said that because of the constant traffic of weekend events there, “equestrians need this trail to circumvent the Inn area.” She added that the proposed site of the course lies between three public barns (the Monastery Stable, Courtesy Stables, and the Northwestern Avenue Stables). Because of obstacles like bridges, erosion and boulders, many existing trails, while accessible to pedestrians, are off-limits to horses.

“The area in question is a prime riding area mid-way between all the barns, linking us,” Jarvis said, fearing that the proposed course could cost riders “8-10 prime acres” of the park.

Dollars and volunteers

Another major concern for APOW is the money that Parks and Rec officials estimate the concession will generate for the park annually.

Soffa insisted that a lot of people “question the wisdom” of installing an outside, for-profit company in the park, “and having a possible income of only $50,000…which we all agree is not enough money for the risk that it poses to the park.”

Cotter also pointed out that a wide range of volunteer groups provide crucial support to Parks and Rec: generations of families “have a stake” in what happens to local forests.

From Pennypack Park to the Wissahickon?

APOW members say that their current situation resembles a 2010 Parks and Rec proposal for another treetop adventure course.

“A lot of people were horrified to find out that the same project was vetted up at the Pennypack Park…and people there kind of kicked the can down the road, and now it’s right at our door,” Soffa said.

Allen confirmed that the park was the site of a course proposal, though the Friends of Pennypack Park, who reportedly opposed the project, could not be reached for comment.

APOW members claimed that that opposition was key to the Pennypack proposal’s failure, but Allen has a different take.

While he acknowledged that neighbors there raised concerns about noise, traffic and environmental impact, Allen maintained that the Pennypack project “never got off the ground” simply because of the venue of the announcement.

“We had a community meeting in a retirement home in the Northeast, and it was not the right audience for a project like that, so we withdrew it,” Allen said, explaining that most of the people in attendance were senior citizens who wouldn’t use a treetop course.

Go Ape, a major treetop adventure and zip-line operator which runs courses in Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, was reportedly among those considered by Parks and Rec in both cases.

“Through our experiences at each of our courses, we are widely regarded as a positive contributor to the community and have outstanding relationships across the board,” a Go Ape spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement, but refused to comment further.

For her part, Cotter fears that opening the door to one for-profit concession will lead to more development down the road: “It’s more money, more diminished land, and more commercialization, and there goes our jewel.”

For more on the Alliance for the Preservation of the Wissahickon, visit the group’s blog

Editor’s note: It was brought to our attention that the specific course details of the proposal are unclear. While there is no official proposal laid out, we added a paragraph explaining what the course could, potentially, entail. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal