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David Dannenberg – Board Member, Friends of the Wissahickon (Part 3 of 3)

By Admin | March 9, 2008

What have been your duties since you joined the Board of Directors?

At the time I joined the FOW it was an all-volunteer organization. FOW had been involved during its around 80 year history in various endeavors.

These ranged from helping to force closer of Upper Wissahickon Drive, henceforth called Forbidden Drive, to private motor vehicle traffic, to running Valley Green Inn, to various conservation and construction projects.

I joined the Conservation Committee which oversees most of the actual in-park work of the organization.

To make a long story short, I soon became a member of a 3 person committee charged with re-evaluating mountain biking in the Wissahickon.

In the mid 1990s FOW had helped Fairmount Park Commission craft a policy of shared use whereby some trails in the Wissahickon would be open to mountain biking.

By 1998 or so, even people who had supported the policy were having second thoughts due to issues of conflict between mountain bikers and other users.

There was also the issue of perceived damage to the park allegedly caused by biking. In the course of our work, the committee was careful to separate social issues—conflict borne of experience or opinion, for example bikes don’t “belong” in the Wissahickon, from conservation issues. We believed that the resolution of the latter could never resolve the former.

The committee concluded that the shared use system was not working. However we could not determine whether this failure was primarily because a shared use trail system that included mountain biking is in concept fundamentally unworkable in the Wissahickon, or rather because the trail system in its current configuration and condition is so bad.

Even a mildly well-informed observer cannot help but conclude that the Wissahickon trail system is highly degraded, and we were confident that the shared use system was failing at least in part due to that condition.

How did you resolve that dilemma?

The committee felt unqualified to determine the fine grained truth of the matter and therefore recommended that FOW hire professional experts to advise us.

These consultants were to determine whether it was advisable to try to create a shared use system that would accommodate mountain biking, or to attempt to exclude mountain bikes from the Wissahickon altogether.

Importantly, they were to estimate the resources necessary for each. I would be happy to provide a copy of the committee’s report to anyone who is interested.

Eventually FOW did hire consultants who were pre-approved by both the, at that time, ardently anti-mountain bike Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers (WRV) president Joe Dlugash, and the Delaware Valley Mountain Bike Patrol (DVMBP), a volunteer biking safety and advocacy group that was then active in the Wissahickon.

After evaluating the Wissahickon, the consultants unequivocally recommended that the shared use system remain and that the entire trails system be rebuilt to be ecologically and socially sustainable.

Did the Friends of the Wissahickon adopt the consultants’ plans?

Since that time we have been involved in a three phase process to do just that.

Concurrent with the development of this project, now called the Sustainable Trails Initiative (STI) the FOW undertook a strategic plan and decided to professionalize.

Currently, in addition to our all-volunteer board of directors and other volunteers, FOW has more than a half dozen highly competent and dedicated full and part time staff. FOW simply could not undertake to accomplish its many goals without their tireless efforts.

How did you acquire your skills to build park trails?

My own expertise in trail design and construction has been developed over the past half decade or so through reading, practice, observation, and training by people far more expert than I.

It is safe to say that I know as much or more about natural surface trail design and construction as anyone in Philadelphia—which speaks more to the narrowness of the field than to my particular expertise.

Therefore, it is also safe to say that in a room full of 50 professional trail builders, I would rank 51. I keep learning and rate myself as a good amateur.

Why did you get involved?

I became involved primarily because I love the Wissahickon. I enjoy doing the work itself, gain a great deal of satisfaction out of completed projects, and I perceive a real need for the work to be done.

I view it as a very important public service, privately undertaken in the face of failure of the public sector. It is also a means to meet and work with a variety of wonderful people and to spend a lot of time outside in the woods.

Why particularly did you get interested in trails?

The reason I am interested in trails in particular, is that the current trails are the most severely eroding areas of the park. Because most of the heavily eroding areas of the park are trails, at its heart the STI is a conservation project.

It is just not right for the trail tread to be several feet or yards below the surface of the surrounding land, to be several feet or even yards wide, to be several inches deep in flowing water during rain storms, to continually change in shape and size.

Erosion takes away soil that is the very foundation of the forest, clogs the waterways, exposes tree roots. The trees then fall, habitat is destroyed, invasive species move in, etc in a terrible downward spiral of destruction.

At the same time, trails are the primary interface between park users and the park. Like a good road, a good trail enhances user experience often without the user noticing.

A curving narrow trail with good site lines slows bikers down while allowing plenty of warning of other trail users.

Trails that don’t have loose rocks don’t cause as many twisted ankles; trails that are at grade, narrow, and pass close by beautiful natural features and vistas give users a feeling of intimacy with the forest.

Trail design and construction is an art and science. Good trails both protect the natural areas that they traverse, and engender positive user experiences.

How do you correct trail erosion and make a trail sustainable?

The trails must be built to shed water. To accomplish this the trail must first of all be correctly located on the land (in the correct “corridor”) and second of all be properly constructed of the correct materials.

Trails should never be located along the “fall line”, best defined as the path a bowling ball would take if dropped from the top of a hill and allowed to find its own way to the bottom.

On a topographical map the fall line crosses the contour lines at right angles. If a trial is built on the fall line water will travel along the trail rather than across and off of it and the trail will erode.

By contrast, if a trail is built mostly parallel to the contour lines, with many “grade reversals”–that is, small areas where the trail turns up hill even as it generally runs down hill–and if the tread of the trail is sloped outward towards the outside of the hill, it will tend to shed water and not erode.

Of course in practice, the devil is in the details and there is much nuance to good trail design.

In the Wissahickon, about a third of the trails are along corridors where if the trails are rebuilt they will be sustainable—that is, after reconstruction they will need virtually no maintenance to withstand the vagaries of weather and use without degradation.

About a third of the trails can be rebuilt in existing corridors to be “maintainable”. That is they will hold up fine if subject to periodic maintenance.

And, about a third of the existing trails must be closed, and the land reclaimed by filling and appropriate planting.

In some cases new trails will be built to replace the closed ones, in others the poor trails can simply be eliminated. There are maps in the warming sheds at Valley Green that generally depict the plans for the main trails.

In terms of resources, the most work required is in closing some trails; almost as much work is required to rebuild unsustainable trails to be sustainable or maintainable.

Believe it or not the least work is building new sustainable trails from scratch. To illustrate this consider that the re-building of only 555 feet of steep trail to sustainable standards last fall required 660 hours of hand and machine work.

The closure of less than 200 yards of badly eroded trail in an easily accessed location consumed 400 tons of fill and about 3 man-weeks of work, mostly with heavy machinery. There are more than 15 miles of trail closure to be accomplished.

By contrast on a different project in late 2006 the opening over 3400 feet of new trail consumed something under 360 hours.

You are embarking on several multimillion dollar restoration projects. Where does your funding come from?

We get funding wherever we can. A good deal of the funding for Phases I and II came from the state of Pennsylvania.

hose two phases consisted of analysis, planning, and two demonstration construction projects. The total cost of both phases, if memory serves me, was something around $200K.

The state will not likely be able to provide funds in excess of tens or hundred thousand dollars. Of course we are grateful for the support of the state, and it has been vital in getting us to this stage of the project, but it won’t be nearly enough to get the job done.

The balance of the funds to date have come from foundations and private individuals. It is the latter that will likely provide most of our funding, though we continue to pursue grants and will also attempt to get funding from the federal government.

Do you find it difficult to compete for private philanthropic dollars in the Philadelphia charitable community?

FOW’s Development personnel are optimistic that private individuals can be found to bear much of the cost. This seems reasonable to me.

I am mindful of the fact that about a year or so ago, when Jefferson University wanted to sell the famous painting “The Gross Clinic” to someone outside of the city, local private individuals managed to come up with something like $69 million in something like three weeks time!

I am sure that The Gross Clinic is a very good and important painting. I am sure a lot of people will see it and derive satisfaction from seeing it.

Consider though that the Wissahickon serves one million people per year, and the STI is intended to create a trail system to last 100 years at a cost of $10 million—which includes funds for continuing programs and maintenance.

That works out to a cost of 10 cents per visit over the anticipated lifetime of the project. The Wissahickon is among the City’s and region’s most valuable assets. It is irreplaceable and right now it is literally washing away.

If Philadelphia’s philanthropic community cannot act to protect this asset, it will reflect very poorly on us as a city and speak volumes about values of civic virtue.

Where does the Forbidden Drive rank in the hierarchy of urban trails?

Forbidden Drive is an important commuter corridor, maintenance corridor, and access and recreational corridor to hundreds of thousands of park visitors. It runs through the heart of the Wissahickon and most excursions to the Wissahickon involve some use of FD.

However it is not part of the FOW’s Sustainable Trails Inititive project per se . The STI is intended to handle the 50-60 miles of “natural surface” trails, commonly called the “upper trails”. Forbidden Drive is being largely left to our partners at Fairmount Park Commision.

Copyright 2008 DailyInterview.com

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