From the Director: Loving the Wissahickon to Death

Conservation // July 20, 2016

In his article “Stay on Trail: How the National Park Service Made it Work,”  author and former park ranger Jordan Smith writes about national park users loving these parks to death. He describes the impact park visitors have on the wilderness in these public spaces and the history of the Park Service’s efforts to mitigate this impact. What is happening in Wissahickon Valley Park is the same, but the pressures are more intense–the visitor impact is greater and the encroachment of human action is higher in an urban environment.

Wissahickon Valley Park receives 1.1 million visits per year. That may seem small in comparison to Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain national parks, where they each have over 4 million visits a year. But keep in mind that the amount of space that the Wissahickon provides is much, much less. The Wissahickon is 1,800 acres. Yellowstone is 2 million acres, Yosemite is 748,000, and Rocky Mountain is 265,600. The smallest of these three, Rocky Mountain, has approximately 15 visitors per acre annually. The Wissahickon: 611.

If we want to retain any semblance of the natural experience that we are trying to preserve in the Wissahickon, then we need to have systems in place to deal with, process, and accommodate human use, which is higher in urban parks than it is in national parks. Smith describes efforts over the years to manage visitorship in national parks; those same efforts need to be intensified many times over for any urbanized park setting. What that means is that FOW’s work in partnership with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is just as fundamentally important, and perhaps even more vital and more urgent, as some of the work being undertaken in these federal parks. Our pressures are greater, our land area is less, and the stressors on our environment are more numerous.

The real detriment in national and urban parks is, of course, human use. Loving our park to death is something that we Philadelphians have been doing in the Wissahickon for decades, and the evidence is all around us every day. So if we want to make sure that the Wissahickon continues to be here for us and for future generations, we have to make more serious investments in the park, like the new Wayfinding and Signage System and the Sustainable Trails Initiative. We need to make investments in the park that will allow us to manage users safely and have them pass through the Wissahickon sustainably.

by Maura McCarthy, FOW Executive Director