Wissahickon treetop adventure course proposal put on hold

This week, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation confirmed that Northwest Philadelphia residents opposed to a treetop adventure course in Wissahickon Valley Park may have gotten their wish, at least for now.

According to a Thursday statement, Parks and Rec “is deferring further public action and discussion regarding the Tree Top Adventure course in the Wissahickon Valley to conduct an internal re-evaluation of the concept.”

Citing the value of a “collaborative process” in re-examining the proposal, Parks and Rec still affirmed its belief that the course would be “an innovative and appropriate strategy” for education and future engagement.

The statement comes on the heels of a Wednesday announcement from the Friends of the Wissahickon – who tentatively supported the proposal in February, pending certain conditions – stating the group’s formal opposition to the proposal. 

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The revised FOW statement read, “Although [Parks and Rec] was responsive to most of these conditions, several of them remained unmet or only partially met.” FOW officials did not provide any additional comments. 

Exploring the proposed site 

Last week, NewsWorks joined members of the Alliance for the Preservation of the Wissahickon (APOW), a neighborhood group formed in early April to oppose the new concession, for a walk-through of the proposed site at Wigard and Henry avenues.

Local historian Liz Jarvis, the author of three “Images of America” books about Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, attended the walk along with APOW organizers Denise Cotter and Kris Soffa, local landscape architect Susan Wilson, and Cynthia Turecki, the Philadelphia chapter director of the Pennsylvania Equine Council and president of Fairmount Park’s Courtesy Stable. 

Cotter, who called the Wigard Avenue site “our stomping grounds,” had been petitioning the neighborhood, alongside her 13-year-old daughter Christmas (a Penn Charter 7th-grader) and her 94-year-old mother, Adeline DeStefano (another local resident). Cotter said the community response was strong, resulting in about 200 online signatures and 800 paper signatures from neighbors opposed to the course.

Soffa emphasized that the region is not lacking for aerial views: she said nearby zip-line courses through organizations like Outward Bound and Morris Arboretum meet the need for treetop education and adventure.

Jarvis added that the proposed 5-7 acre course would stress an area of heavy mixed usage: pedestrians (both human and canine) already share the paths with birders, bikers and equestrians.

While Parks and Rec officials emphasized that the removable course would be installed with minimum damage to the trees, Wilson pointed out that the greatest danger might not be the construction of the platforms, but a new influx of human traffic on top of the trees’ roots, as course users train and friends look on.

When it comes to trees, “There’s no such thing as ‘no-impact’,” Wilson insisted.

“I can just see all the wire trash cans and party bags,” Cotter added, worried about the detritus that treetop revelers could bring into the woods.

Impact on trees, horses and trail users 

Near a beech tree scarred with scores of human initials, Wilson pointed out blooming native redbud trees and tulip poplars, as well as a relatively rare cucumber magnolia that is seeding the area.

“It can only really happen here,” Wilson said of the Wissahickon conditions that allow the magnolia to thrive. With local trees already damaged by deer, insects and severe storms, she fears that the construction of a treetop course would cause irreversible harm.

For her part, Turecki acknowledged that there are many different ways of using a park, but the difference between treetop adventurers and users like pedestrians, bikers and equestrians is that “we’re using the park in its natural state,” without requiring extensive treetop equipment.

“When you bring kids here, you want them to scramble over rocks, put their feet in the stream, discover turtles,” Jarvis said, looking out over the spring-green slopes from a stony promontory near the start of the Yellow Trail.

Turecki weighed in for the equestrians.

While she emphasized that the site would not cause the trail to be a danger to horses and riders, she explained that the noises and movements from a treetop course can be especially stressful to horses, as they’re naturally evolved to watch for predators overhead.

The aerial stimulus could also startle speeding bikers, Jarvis added.

A repeat scenario 

APOW members have an ally in nearby Huntingdon Valley, where Friends of Pennypack Park (FOPP) president Linde Lauff said locals opposed a similar Parks and Rec proposal in 2010, involving treetop adventure operator Go Ape, who declined to comment for this story.

“Our biggest fear is that the damage done to the natural environment by the construction of a treetop adventure course would be permanent and irreversible when and if the business is dissolved,” Lauff said, quoting from an official FOPP statement in response to the proposal.

Lauff added that any saplings planted to replace damaged adult trees “would be a poor substitute for established trees,” which aren’t at risk from hungry deer.

Parks and Rec Director of Property and Concessions Management Bob Allen maintained that the project was withdrawn due to a lack of interest from the senior citizens who attended an initial meeting, but Lauff disagreed.

“That’s not accurate,” she said, pointing to active attendance by FOPP members at initial meetings.

Lauff said other concerns raised by FOPP members included the disruption of the park’s “tranquil atmosphere,” and the risks of a crowded parking lot at the course site, making it more difficult for emergency and security personnel to access the park when needed.

Lauff said Pennypack Park users knew opposing the course in their area would not end the controversy: “There was that concern that if we turned it down, other parks would be proposed, and that the same issues were going to arise there as well.”

“I don’t think it’s going to go away too easily,” she predicted. “Maybe it won’t occur in the Wissahickon, but they’re going to try it somewhere else.”

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