A Fairmount Park eagle. (Photo by Ruth Pfeffer)

A Fairmount Park eagle. (Photo by Ruth Pfeffer)

by Maura McCarthy

Nothing thrills visitors to Wissahickon Valley Park more than spotting one of the eagles that began appearing along the creek a few years ago. But it is important to note that these eagles do not nest in this public park – they hunt there. Their nests are located on private parcels of land adjacent to the park. Understanding the relationship between public and private land is important in preserving open space, not just for wildlife, but for all of us.

Visitors to the Wissahickon hike, bike, run on the trails, walk their pets, ride horses, seek out birds and feed the ducks. They come to paint, read, meditate and enjoy the natural environment. They intuitively know that the park offers them a respite from busy contemporary life. What they may not realize is that the Wissahickon Creek is a source of drinking water for Philadelphians, and that the park is part of a network of open space that protects the creek from surrounding urban development.

The contiguous open spaces throughout the Wissahickon Watershed are a system of public and private land that shares plant communities as well as wild bird and mammal populations. Just as the lungs in the human body cannot work if detached from the circulatory system, this system of open space cannot function without a network of undeveloped land protected by public and private partnerships, municipalities, and conservation easements with private land owners.

The Joint Easement Program of the Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) and the Chestnut Hill Historical Society (CHHS) encourages property owners within the Wissahickon Watershed to donate potential development rights to CHHS, a land trust accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission. The program currently protects over 90 acres in Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Springfield Township. FOW’s particular area of engagement is with the conservation portion of the program. Many of the 32 conservation easement properties border on or are adjacent to Wissahickon Valley Park, and/or possess natural features that help to manage storm water runoff. The easements on these properties provide scenic views, sustain natural habitats, and prevent inappropriate development. No other easement program in Pennsylvania preserves open space on small parcels in an urban setting.

CHHS is committed to the long-term sustainability of its mission as an easement holder, making it an ideal partner for FOW. Because we employ a 100-year view of work on sustainability issues within the park, we value an easement partner such as CHHS working to protect all the interconnected pieces of landscape surrounding the park.

As a community, we need to support our public parkland through direct volunteer service, advocacy, and membership in organizations like FOW. But we must also be aware of the importance of conservation easements on private land. Public open space alone is not going to be enough to sustain our public health, a diverse ecosystem, or a healthy watershed. We need to defend our public open spaces and encourage our friends and neighbors to place conservation easements on private land that is part of valuable network of open space throughout the Wissahickon Watershed.

To find out more information on open spaces that are currently protected, visit CHHist.org to register for the Open Space Showcase at the Valley Green Inn on Oct. 28 from 6 to-8 p.m.

Maura McCarthy is executive director of Friends of the Wissahickon.