A three-year strategic plan was expected to end in 2020, but COVID restrictions resulted in an extension into 2021.
The Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) held its annual Public Projects meeting on January 27, reporting on 2020 and plans for the new year.
The organization’s most ambitious new project is the Valley Green Run and Pedestrian Bridge. At an estimated cost of $1 million, the plan includes streambank restoration along the run and a new pedestrian bridge from the main parking lot to Valley Green. The work, led by Skelly & Loy, in partnership with CVM and Krieger Architects, is meant to make the park entry safer by stabilizing the lower part of Valley Green Road and getting pedestrian traffic off the narrow road onto a new footbridge.
Valley Green is considered the “front door to the park,” said Ruffian Tittman, Executive Director of the FOW. “It should be a wonderful new environmental and park visitor feature to the Wissahickon.”
When completed in 2022, it will repair erosion and drainage issues that have developed over the years in the Valley Green Run, the stream that flows under the existing bridge.
Other projects include restoration of the north Lavender Gully Run.
“We’re looking, where we can, to restore the landscape, so that we can create more infiltration,” Tittman said. “Where we can’t achieve 100% infiltration, we’re looking to achieve stabilization.”
The third major project is developing a master plan for the park’s six restrooms, and possibly adding a seventh.
When the pandemic closed businesses and schools last spring, more people turned to the park system; daily visitors increased around 33%, or roughly 700,000 by the end of the summer. At the same time, the FOW had to cut back on volunteer projects to avoid social distancing problems with such large groups. This led to an increase in trash adding to delays on normal maintenance.
The Friends responded with a new system of smaller, more frequent volunteer projects, and a new Individual Stewardship program, providing support for individuals and families to volunteer on their own schedule: cleanup, habitat and damage reporting, even hunting for lanternflies. There’s also a “WissaHero” kit available for individual cleanup efforts.
A three-year strategic plan was expected to end in 2020, but COVID restrictions resulted in an extension into 2021. A sustainable trails initiative, started almost 20 years ago, was expected to be completed last year but will now finish by next Fall. The Monster Trail’s Orange trail was improved, and the Yellow trail was rerouted after months of COVID-related delays. Volunteers are still completing work on the southern end of the Quarry Loop. Much of the repair work involved erosion, foundations and drainage, with an aim of sustainability.
Shawn Green, FOW’s Volunteer Manager, explained “We had to rethink our strategies to best steward the park. Thankfully, we had a very active and amazing community of volunteers.”
In 2020 there were 500 volunteers donating more than 7,000 hours of service, now in smaller work groups, stretched out over longer periods. The work included clearing 67 downed trees and planting 68; clearing brush, opening drains and or course collecting trash. Green estimated the crews removed our 10,000 pounds of trash over the year.
FOW hopes to hire a larger field crew this year and get back on track to complete their strategic plan soon.
Additional 2021 programs are still in the early stages and will be posted on fow.org when available. Ongoing projects for volunteers include pulling vines, picking up trash, and seeking out lanternflies. They’re also launching a new “Leave No Trace” hot spot partnership with the Center for Outdoor Ethics.
Ruffian Tittman. Who has been part of FOW for almost 14 years, is starting her second year as executive director. She said a constant issue is maintaining the miles of trails through the park.
“We’ve worked really hard over the last 15 or twenty years to make the trails more sustainable,” she said. “In a park this size, with this intensity of use…we’ve kept trails open that do require stewardship to come back.”
One of the accidental discoveries of operating in a pandemic has been virtual assets.
“What a great tool technology can be for augmenting park stewardship and the park visitor experience,” Tittman said.
Because their Trail Ambassadors were sidelined, they added more virtual content to their website (fow.org) and developed a Wissahickon Map App, designed to function even when there’s no signal. Stewards can report their hours online.
“We’ll be launching more lecture talks in smaller ‘bite sizes’ this year,” Tittman added. “We won’t ever go back to having a lecture somewhere where only a hundred people can come. We’ll want to carry over some kind of hybrid model of our programming. That’s been the big thing. We can do it.”