Down the hill from the Congress Heights Metro Station and the Giant on Alabama Avenue is a magical place hidden in plain sight. Along Mississippi Avenue east of 13th Street, open fields and woods give the impression of having suddenly left the city behind.
Because there are no signs, few realize that this is the 126-acre National Park called Oxon Run Parkway. Because there are no trails, not many take the short walk through the woods to the stream, with its deep pools full of fish darting about, and extensive sandbars and islands carved out by meandering currents. Crossing the stream, you’ll find yourself in a rare magnolia bog ecosystem, surrounded by ferns and mosses. Nearby are the ghostly ruins of a WWII-era shooting range, all that remains of former Camp Simms military reservation. Further south, near Southern Avenue, is a pristine upland area of beech trees and mountain laurel.
A mile to the west, Shepherd Parkway, another National Park Service property, runs along the steep hillsides that rise from 295 for two miles and 197 acres. These woods feature towering stands of old-growth oak, poplar and sweetgum, two bald eagles nests, and views across the city. In 2019 eight acres of woods were cut down as part of the new 295-Malcolm X Avenue Interchange project.
If these parklands were in Northwest DC, Montgomery County or Northern Virginia, they would probably be clean, well-marked, and traversed by well-maintained hiking trails. It’s hard to imagine any part of Rock Creek Park being destroyed to make way for a road.
Instead, the same neglect and discirimination that have made poverty and violence all too common in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River have taken a toll on the land there.
Decades of illegal dumping and littering have left the ground in many places covered with millions of pounds of household trash, furniture, construction materials, tires, car parts, electronics and appliances. All this trash doesn’t just spoil the forests’ beauty value; it contaminates the soil, poisons foraging wildlife, and flows from stormwater to rivers.
Further weakening the ecosystem, invasive plants introduced from other parts of the world have overwhelmed native ones and choked out thousands of native trees. In some areas, all that remains of the forest are meadows covered with a single invasive vines.
This disparity in the condition of wild parklands fits the pattern of environmental racism, in which negative environmental impacts fall heaviest on the poor and people of color.
The Ward 8 Woods Conservancy was established in 2018 to increase the health, beauty, and public enjoyment of the more than 500 acres of forest in Ward 8, which also include Ft. Stanton Park and the land along Suitland Parkway.
A crew of four Park Stewards, Ward 8 residents who face barriers to employment, work four days a week to realize these goals. Robert Carpenter, the lead Park Steward, is a Ward 8 native and returning citizen. “ I have a background that got me turned away from a lot of jobs, but there was no discrimination with Ward 8 Woods. I like giving back to the community I’ve been living in all my life” he says.
In 18 months of work, the crew and volunteers have removed more than 100 tons of trash from the woods, cut invasive vines from more than 600 trees, and shared information about our work with over 2,000 Ward 8 residents. To help reduce the amount of litter generated, they’ve been passing out reusable grocery bags.
In February 2020, Ward 8 Woods took a first step in its long term vision of making these parks accessible and inviting with a network of hiking trails by adopting the existing George Washington Carver Nature Trail. Created by staff of the Anacostia Community Museum in the 1990s but unmaintained and unused in recent years, the trail is an easy half mile loop through the beautiful woods directly behind the museum. A grand reopening is scheduled for this summer.
Residents can support Ward 8 Woods in three ways:
Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @ward8woods
Volunteer! For details visit ward8woods.org/volunteer
Donate at ward8woods.org/donate
Nathan Harrington is founder and executive director of the Ward 8 Woods Conservancy. He has been a Congress Heights resident since 2009.