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In Tacony Creek Park, paths of disrepair remain after ATV destruction

In Tacony Creek Park, red-tail hawks circle overhead while deer bound toward the tree line and the creek burbles and sparkles in the sun.At least that's what you see and hear on a weekday morning if you don't look too closely.

In Tacony Creek Park, red-tail hawks circle overhead while deer bound toward the tree line and the creek burbles and sparkles in the sun.

At least that's what you see and hear on a weekday morning if you don't look too closely.

But glance at the ground and you see tire tracks that have chewed paths down hillsides and churned the creek banks into a deep, fine silt that's prone to erosion. Visit on a weekend and you hear the roar of dozens of dirt bikes and ATVs that have chased the wildlife into hiding and prompted park neighbors to close their windows.

Riding dirt bikes and ATVs in public parks — or anywhere in the city, except on private property with permission — is illegal. Yet Philadelphia's nearly 9,500 acres of parkland have proven an irresistible lure to hundreds of dirt bikers and ATV riders who see the meadows, hillsides and shallow creekbeds as their personal playground.

The result is destruction worse and more expensive than anything Mother Nature at her stormiest could cause, park advocates say.

"When you have these vehicles running around in there, it not only ruins it for the park visitors, but it degrades the ecosystem, it destroys regeneration, it creates storm water management problems, it tears up trails we put in for the walkers and bikers — in many respects, it takes a fragile ecosystem and completely wreaks havoc on it," said Michael DiBerardinis, commissioner of the parks and recreation department. "We're on a limited budget, and yet we're spending lots of money correcting the damage from illegal vehicles, money we could be spending treating invasives [plants], expanding trails [for legitimate park users] or other needs."

Nowhere is the problem more evident than in Tacony Creek Park, whose 295 acres hug the Tacony Creek from Cheltenham Township down to the Juniata Golf Course.

The park is one of the city's seven watershed parks, those established primarily to protect waterways from city perils like pollution. Watershed parks tend to be more undeveloped and wild than other public parks — and therefore more attractive to ATV and dirt-bike riders. Tacony Creek Park also has been plagued by people abandoning junker cars and illegally dumping construction debris and other garbage.

In 2002, the city spent $180,000 to address those problems in the part of the park between Whitaker Avenue and Fishers Lane, removing old cars, car parts and trash, stabilizing and planting the slopes illegal drivers and dumpers damaged, removing rogue trails and grading sanctioned ones, fixing storm water runoff problems and reseeding meadows made muddy by ATVs and dirt bikes. Another $83,000 went to further improve the meadows so that they would bloom and beguile wildlife and visitors alike. And the Philadelphia Water Department is midway through an $8 million stream-restoration project that includes planting almost 1,100 willow, oak, sycamore and other trees to stabilize creek banks.

To protect that investment, the city in 2009 installed a mile of guardrail — costing more than $113,000 — around the part of the park ATV riders and dirt bikers most often used to enter. Workers also placed rebar-reinforced logs across some rogue trails and park entryways to thwart riders. And they dumped unwanted trees, forming a tangled web of wood, down a steep hillside near Whitaker Avenue to deter dirt-bikers and ATV'ers whose spinning wheels had ripped away all foliage and left crumbling crevasses there.

Still, the ATV'ers and dirt bikers have proven as pesky to boot from the park as the invasive kudzu vine and Japanese knotwood that choke out native plants.

The guardrail didn't work: One industrious rider sawed an ATV-wide hole to gain entry to the park off Whitaker Avenue near Louden Street. Others carted their bikes and ATVs in on pickup trucks, dropping them into the parks via ramps straddling the rusted steel rails. And some found other routes into the park — including through a gated entrance to neighboring acreage owned by the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation.

"It's a steel, hinged gate, reinforced by a steel beam about as bulky as we could get. They've torn it down so many times, we're approaching probably $10,000 in gate damage," said Joe Pyle, the foundation's president. "Repairing damage done by 20 to 30 ATV'ers is not where the foundation should be putting its money."

As for the tree trunks webbed over the hillside, irked riders set them ablaze. And the path-blocking logs might as well have been twigs; many are long-gone, with just the twisted remains of the rebar, ready to trip unaware hikers, left behind.

"There's not much a person on an ATV can't move. They put a chain around it and just move it, even boulders," said Jackie Olson, who has spent years fixing ATV and dirt-bike damage in Tacony Park and other parks.

Olson works for the parks and recreation department, recruiting volunteers for park cleanups and maintenance projects.

"I get embarrassed to have people come back to volunteer, because we'd clean it up, and it would get destroyed again so fast," she said, as she surveyed meadows marred by mud puddles and dust bowls by frequent ATV use.

"These are neighborhoods where people could use the respite [a park provides] — people who have lived in the city their whole lives and could use the green, immigrants from other places, or low-wage working people who don't have the money for country clubs," Olson added. "But ATVs are undoing all of our good work."

DiBerardinis agreed: "Folks who want to use that beautiful, public space in an appropriate way are chased off by people using it illegally and inappropriately."

One ATV rider denied damaging the park.

"Believe it or not, that's like the funnest park to ride in," said Mook, who rides every weekend with the Philly Hang Gang, a group he and friends formed about a year ago. He asked that his real name be withheld so police don't ticket him or confiscate his ATVs.

"I know that park like the back of my hand," Mook added. "It ain't like you tearing up the golf course or a baseball field. It's dirt and water. You got to wear glasses or something if you riding in the grass."

But Olson noted that most trails in the lower part of the park, where ATV and dirt bike damage is worst, are not official trails and were created by illegal riders.

Despite the persistence of riders, park officials remain undaunted. Their latest strategies to foil riders involve community cooperation and park development. First, they plan to exhort park neighbors, volunteers and workers to "develop intelligence" about when and where riders routinely enter and exit the park.

"We know police are stretched, we know there are limited resources, we know there are worse crimes than this," DiBerardinis said. "So that means we have to give police not only information but intelligence, so that they can strategically apply their limited resources to great effect." Cops could use that intelligence to block riders' exit and confiscate their bikes and ATVs, he added.

Second, they plan to build a 1.4-mile, 12-foot wide paved trail in the ATV-plagued lower part of the park, where there are no official trails. The new $1.4 million trail will connect to an existing paved trail that starts above Roosevelt Boulevard. Getting more legitimate users into the park should decrease illegal activity, DiBerardinis said.

Skeptics remain unconvinced.

"That's a waste of money. The ATV guys will love that! It's like they're putting in a racetrack for them," said one park neighbor, who asked that his name be withheld because he feared reprisal from riders.

The neighbor said the city must create a comprehensive strategy aimed at removing ATVs and dirt bikes from the city altogether.

"I'm disappointed that city has this policy that the police can't chase them, and that's the end of it. They should be talking about other options," he said.

Various city leaders say they have been brainstorming ideas to outwit scofflaws on ATVs and dirt bikes. Yet riders continue to hit the streets and parks in droves every year, whenever the weather warms, and the city still has no effective policies to stop them.

A City Council hearing is planned for this fall.