Visiting Wissahickon Valley Park? Leave No Trace

There are two things you can do right now to make the Wissahickon Valley Park a better place: don’t litter and stick to designated trails. 

It might sound like a little, but, according to Friends of the Wissahickon Executive Director Ruffian Tittmann, it can all add up to quite a lot. 

Reducing trash and keeping visitors from forging their own trails are the two key goals of FOW’s Leave No Trace campaign—part of a nationwide effort to preserve the pristine beauty of America’s parks, overseen by the Leave No Trace Center of Outdoor Ethics. 

“The Center is an organization that operates all over the United States,” says Tittmann. “We were nominated to take part in Leave No Trace by one of our dedicated volunteers who’s an avid park user and educator. He filled out the nomination application, and we were selected to be a designated Leave No Trace Hot Spot in 2019. Because of Covid, the actual training and events associated with being a Hot Spot happened in July 2021.”

Wissahickon Valley Park is one of 10 vital outdoor areas nationwide named as a Hot Spot.

The guiding principle behind Leave No Trace is to create a culture of change in how communities use outdoor spaces. The Leave No Trace Center of Outdoor Ethics assigned Leave No Trace educators to train FOW staff and volunteers, city Parks and Recreation workers, and members of the public who were interested in how to change visitors’ behavior in the park. 

Working with Center advisers, the Friends came up with their two goals to help enact that change.

So, let’s start by talking garbage.

How long does a plastic bottle last in nature? Indefinitely—and animals consume them. You can guess that that would be bad. It is. Or how about a used disposable diaper, which, believe it or not, is a not uncommon memento of people’s visits to the 1,800-acre park. Aside from the potential for spreading disease, disposable diapers last up to 100 years in the wild.

Even items that you might suppose are biodegradable, like banana peels, can last up to two years on the forest floor. These substances are dangerous to the park’s wildlife—aside from making the park unsightly.

About 2 million people visit the park annually, so the trash can pile up.

Leaving any of the park’s roughly 50 miles of designated trails also does great harm, according to Tittmann.

When people traipse, trot, or bike through the undergrowth to create short cuts, other people soon follow. “You scoot through the bushes, and you think, they’ll fluff back up,” Tittmann explains. “But soon someone else sees your path and thinks, it’s a little easier to go that way than here. Then, somebody else walks on it, and somebody else does. If everybody’s walking where they want to, there will be no forest left.”

Those new trails become open areas for erosion. As water flows through those areas, they can become gullies, carrying dirt downhill, and plants with it.

So, bottom line: As FOW began mapping out its Leave No Trace campaign, keeping litter in check and persuading visitors to stick to designated trails became the most obvious and best ways to make the park a better place. “Those are the two biggies for us in keeping the park, the land and the water, both a healthy environment and an enjoyable environment,” Tittmann says. 

As a reminder, you’ll be seeing Leave No Trace signs popping up in several critical locations, like the all too well-known Devil’s Pool—if there’s a jewel in the crown of the Wissahickon, that’s it—and at trailheads throughout the park over the next few weeks. 

But Leave No Trace is about much more than signs. There’s a lot of people power, with pop-up educational programs, and taking the message directly to visitors.

Take Devil’s Pool, for example, among the worst kept secrets on social media in the warm-weather months, attracting crowds of people from all over, who swim in the pool’s cooling waters—and who leave behind piles of trash.

“We have probably a decade-and-a-half worth of data on our trash clean-ups, particularly in and around Devil’s Pool,” says Tittmann. “What we see is, as you have more people in an area, the more trash you have. But an interesting thing we’ve been seeing is that, even before we were designated a Hot Spot, we were implementing some of the techniques of Leave No Trace. And as we’ve had people, either seasonal staff or volunteers, out engaging with the public and encouraging people to carry out what they carry in—and telling them all the reasons why—we have not seen trash grow at the same rates as before. 

“So, I think that’s a powerful story that we are reaching folks and creating some of this change. Otherwise, as we saw visitorship double, we would see trash double—and we have not been seeing that. We’ve seen it go up, but not at the same rate as visitorship.”

It might not sound like a lot, but this face-to-face education can result in “a profound change in thought in people,” Tittmann says. “When you think about something like a banana peel, it’s not a native plant, it doesn’t break down easily, and it can be poisonous to some animals. When you provide people with all the whys and the reasons, it can produce a very powerful change in mindset.”