by Thomas Gartside

Those who supported the development of the now-defunct zipline/treetop adventure in Wissahickon Valley Park regret the loss of potential revenue. The city’s cash flow problems are worse than ever and any new revenue stream, however slight, deserves serious consideration. Fairmount Park is the largest city park in the world, but per acre, it is the least funded. Clearly new funds are needed to preserve this irreplaceable resource.

All this is complicated because Fairmount Park is more than just a park set aside for human recreation. As forests throughout the United States are devastated at a rate of 7.2 million acres per year, the remaining patches are ever more important to wildlife. In 2006 Fairmount Park was declared an Important Bird Area (IBA). This designation was bestowed by Audubon Pennsylvania, which manages bird habitat in consultation with the Ornithological Technical Committee of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Areas receive this designation because they are islands of rich ecological complexity that are critical for the survival of one or more species. In the case of Fairmount Park, the numbers are staggering. Tens of millions of migrants pass through Philadelphia each year, and many of them stop over to rest, feed and sometimes breed in the park as they continue their intercontinental journeys. More than 200 species of migrants, some of which are on the state’s list of species of concern, use the park. In just two weeks, a researcher from Fordham University used marine radar to detect 730,000 migrants in one kilometer near the reservoir at Strawberry Mansion.

Surely the beauty of these creatures is justification enough for us to preserve and enhance this habitat. But most people don’t know about these exotic visitors. The birds’ decline barely registers on their radar as we are beset by bankrupt schools, a skittish economy, and the violence that pervades our society.

There is an extremely human-centered reason for us to protect these species. Human beings coevolved with these species and share the biome. What would happen if these tens of millions did not consume the grasshoppers and caterpillars that make up the bulk of their diet? We would be faced with a vast ecological tragedy certain to destroy the forest as insect populations dine on an exclusive buffet without checks. Such an eventuality is certain to trigger cascading ecological destruction. Biodiversity is essential to the health of our planet and those who ignore it do so at their own peril.

Certainly new revenue streams are needed to preserve the forests and life as we know it on this planet. Nevertheless, an influx of up to 150 adventurers per day zipping through the canopy and tramping through the understory is a poor trade off. We run the risk of destroying the very resource we set out to preserve.

The author wishes to thank Keith Russell, Audubon Pennsylvania’s Fairmount Park Outreach Coordinator, whose insights were invaluable in developing this article.

Thomas Gartside is a member of the Alliance for the Preservation of the Wissahickon, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, Friends of the Wissahickon and Defenders of Wildlife.

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