Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley Park has been designated as a “hot spot” by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a national nonprofit environmental organization that says the area is suffering from severe human-related impacts because of the high number of visitors it draws each year.
Indeed, park use has doubled over the last decade and heightened during the pandemic, leading to tensions. Neighbors last year organized a rally asking for help controlling crowds and trash. However, the crowds seem to have lessened this year.
A team from Leave No Trace arrived this week for a five-day stay in Philly to help the Friends of the Wissahickon, the city’s parks department, and the public craft a plan to tackle some of the issues the park is experiencing.
“High concentrations of visitors have led to visitor conflicts, pet waste issues, and excessive litter, among a multitude of other impacts,” Leave No Trace posted on its website about the park.
Erin Collier, one of two representatives for Leave No Trace, and sponsored by Subaru, said the center gets a lot of applications for the designation but chose just 10 parks this year, including Wissahickon Valley. There are no other hot spots in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, though the group has designated First State National Historical Park in Delaware.
“We look for sites that are in danger of being loved to death,” Collier said.
Though her weeklong training is mostly centered on helping those who manage the park, some events are open to the public, including a three-mile morning hike Friday centered on the history of the Wissahickon. The group will also host a park cleanup Saturday at 9 a.m. The full schedule of events is available on the Friends of Wissahickon and Leave No Trace websites.
Collier said the park was nominated for the hot spot designation in 2019 by a volunteer with Friends of the Wissahickon, which relies on volunteers to help support the 1,800-acre park in northwest Philadelphia. Friends of the Wissahickon works with the city’s parks department, which owns and manages the land.
But the pandemic, she said, forced the organization to put off making any designations in 2020.
Ruffian Tittmann, executive director of the Friends of the Wissahickon, said the Leave No Trace efforts would focus primarily on the area around the Valley Green Inn and Devil’s Pool.
She said the park’s visitors have doubled in the last decade.
“We’re thinking we have over two million now,” Tittmann said, who noted infrared sensors keep track of cars coming into the main parking lots. “Last year, during the pandemic, we were seeing multiple days with a thousand-plus cars on one day.”
This year, the park has seen only one day, July 5, with 1,000 or more cars, on a single day.
Still, Tittmann said visits are still much higher than years ago. She hopes the designation can result in a “positive message” about how everyone can participate in the park and become stewards.
“We’ll encourage folks to not litter, cleanup after themselves, and carry out trash,” Tittmann said.
Indeed, Collier said her workshops will focus on how staff from Friends of the Wissahickon and park officials can have positive, rather than negative, encounters with the public.
“One of the things we teach to park staff and Friends of Wissahickon volunteers is a communications style that focuses on stewardship, a positive method, rather than authority that’s focused on rules and regulations,” she said. “That has been shown to be less effective.”
For example, Collier said a park operator or volunteer that sees someone littering should avoid a confrontation and instead let the person know there has been a problem with littering in the park and tell them how they can help.
“It’s just a small change in language,” Collier said, “but it makes a difference.”