May 9th, 2020

Meet the Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance: Park Friends and Nature Champs!


This post is part of Love Your Park @ Home 2020! Learn more about Love Your Park @ Home here, and Nature Day here.


The Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance is all about nature. As the park friends group dedicated to stewarding the trails in West Fairmount Park, BPTA has a long history of both enjoying and caring for the natural areas in Philadelphia’s most famous park. Get to know this incredible community of volunteers with a Q&A with BPTA President Mark Elsasser.

When was BPTA founded? What was your motivation for forming?
Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance (BPTA) was founded in April 2010 in response to the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation (PPR) identifying a need for a volunteer presence at Belmont Plateau and the surrounding woods. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, upkeep of this area had fallen by the wayside. There hadn’t been an organized volunteer group in this part of West Fairmount Park for many years but a small group of regular park users—including the core members of BPTA—were tending to the existing trails and pathways in the woods on an informal basis. PPR took notice of our efforts and reached out to us. After our initial meeting with PP&R, we decided to form a Park Friends group and were assigned a PPR Stewardship Coordinator, Jason Mifflin. Our first volunteer day was in June 2010 and we began participating in the Park Friends Network program the following year. 


BPTA leaders Mark Elsasser and Nick Uniatowski accept the 2018 Park Friends Network Service Award.


What kind of volunteer work does BPTA do?
We have a dual focus, maintaining the trails and natural surface pathways at Belmont Plateau and West Fairmount Park, and environmental restoration of the surrounding woods. We have a minimum of five (5) organized volunteer days throughout the year: Martin Luther King Day of Service, the Philly Spring Clean Up, Love Your Park Day in the Spring and Fall and our annual Fall Clean Up in early December.  

Our initial volunteer efforts focused on clearing decades of trash and debris that had accumulated in the West Park woods. The first few years of clean up days resulted in literally tons of trash being cleared from the area. It wouldn’t be unusual for our volunteers to gather a hundred bags of trash and a truckload of recycling in a single day. Thankfully, we’ve been able to get out in front of the trash problem and our cleanup day hauls have gotten smaller over the years. But short dumping still continues to be an issue.  We cleared roughly 1200 tires from a short dump near Chamounix Drive on MLK Day this year. It brought back memories of our first clean up days ten years ago!

We also organize volunteer days for trail building and maintenance. When we first started partnering with PPR, they identified areas where the existing trails had sustainability issues or needed changes due to environmental concerns. We’ve worked together with PPR to address those concerns and have also built new trails to make the woods more accessible.


BPTA volunteers celebrate after a cleanup.


What motivates the group to continue this kind of service?
Our volunteers have a deep appreciation of having a natural area to visit in the heart of a densely populated area of Philadelphia. West Fairmount Park is one of the lesser known watershed parks in the Fairmount Park system and in recent years it’s been underutilized. Our work is driven by keeping this resource available and welcoming to all Philadelphians. Belmont is suitable for a variety of active and passive recreational activities and we want all citizens to be able to experience the park on their own terms.

How does nature factor into your work?
Nature is at the center of everything we do! The trails and pathways that wind through the woods are designed for both accessing nature and recreational activity. Although the trails and woods are bordered by an interstate and thickly settled neighborhoods, it still has everything you’d expect in watershed park—trees, creeks, birds, and other wildlife. If you are interested getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city and out into the woods, Belmont is great option. There’s plenty of flora and fauna to see in the Belmont woods and the trails will take you there!

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A variety of fungi and lichens grow along the Belmont trails.


How is the group functioning during quarantine and social distancing protocols?
We suspended all organized volunteer activities and events in mid-March shortly after the City and State announced COVID-19 precautions. Unfortunately, this impacted all our scheduled Spring volunteer days as well as Parks on Tap and our weekly Thursday Night mountain bike ride series.  

Despite the current limitations, the members of core volunteer group have been working in the woods in parties of one to support the upkeep of the trails.  We’ve also remained in contact with our partners at PPR and Fairmount Park Conservancy, and they’ve assisted with trail work and addressing other issues as their schedules and resources permit.  

You've worked closely with Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation on the Trolley Trail. What has that experience been like? What are your goals for the project?
It’s been a great experience! We’ve been working closely with PPR and FPC staff since the start of the project and our team meets regularly, both in the office and out in the field. The project has provided us with the opportunity to assess the current trails and make improvements to the Belmont trail system as a whole—the Trolley Trail is essentially the blueprint for future of the Belmont trails. We’re hoping that trail construction will resume this Summer and the entire Trolley Trail route will be completed by the Fall.  Signage and trail amenities are also planned and will hopefully be in place by next year. 

In addition to our involvement in planning for the Trolley Trail construction, we’ve made significant financial contribution to the project through our participation in the Parks on Tap program. We’ve contributed nearly $10,000 to the project via Parks on Tap reinvestment funds over the past four years.  These funds covered the initial construction costs for Phase 3 of the project, which opened up the Chamounix Tunnel for use. Our contributions to the Trolley Trail project are a perfect example of how the Parks on Tap program benefits Park Friends groups and the parks as a whole.


A completed section of the Trolley Trail in West Fairmount Park


Are you currently recruiting for this group and what is the requirement?
We don’t have formal membership requirements for our volunteers. When park users ask how to get involved, we suggest folks attend our scheduled volunteer days and events to learn more about the work we do and how we do it. Our core volunteer group largely draws from individuals who regularly participate in our organized events. All volunteer events are publicized on our social media platforms (FacebookInstagram). PPR and FPC also help publicize our volunteer events.

What are some of the group’s accomplishments that you would like to share?
Our greatest accomplishment is the role we’ve played in transforming parkland that was essentially abandoned into a place that is inviting and allows the average citizen to connect with nature. Belmont was once considered a foreboding and potentially dangerous place to visit. Our volunteer efforts over the past ten years have helped change that perception and opened the land to more use. There are now thirteen miles of trail that wind through West Fairmount Park that support a variety of activities. This evolution would not have occurred without the full support of our partners at PPR and FPC.  

Any special volunteers or members you would like to recognize?
Yes, Walt Sydnor. Most people know him as just “Walt” and will be surprised to hear he has a last name. Walt has been the primary caretaker of the Belmont trails since the 1990s and is one of the founders of BPTA.  Walt’s commitment to the park is unparalleled and much of the work he does on a day-to-day basis is under the radar. He has a keen appreciation for nature and will see things in the woods that are invisible to most park users. Walt is the heart and soul of Belmont in many ways. Please thank him for his hard work and dedication next time you see him on the trails.


BPTA member Walt Sydnor (center) packing down a fresh trail in West Fairmount Park.