Amidst crumbling buildings, stray bullets, and toxic runoff, a rare ecosystem blooms in far Southeast.
Like many park rangers, Jim Rosenstock considers witnessing the arrival of spring to be one of his job’s greatest perks. As he works on a cool April morning, it’s easy to see why: Deep in the fragile bog that doubles as Rosenstock’s bailiwick, skunk cabbages have already made the earliest splash of the year, filling the muddy wetlands with their broad green leaves. Nearby, curved cinnamon ferns have just raised their fuzzy heads, confirming the annual news that the little piece of swamp is emerging anew.
Before too long, mountain laurel and wild azaleas will bloom over a verdant carpet of lady ferns. And by the time summer rolls around, the bog’s namesake magnolia trees—which today boast only a few early offerings on their scrawny frames—will explode into blossoms and fill the rare ecosystem’s air with their fragrant blossoms.
For most National Park Service employees, watching a piece of natural parkland approach peak bloom also means preparing to greet hordes of seasonal tourists. That, however, is not something Rosenstock has to worry about on the 126 acres of woods off Mississippi Avenue SE in Congress Heights. When you work in one of the District’s most neglected communities and tend to a wetland that even most locals know mainly for its history of pollution, you don’t really expect too many visitors.
“People drive to the Shenandoah Valley to see the mountain laurel in bloom, and you’ve got it right here,” says Rosenstock, crouching to stroke a shrub’s shiny, deep-green leaves. “People think of Southeast and they think of crack alleys, drive-bys. But there’s a lot of nice habitat here.”
Unfortunately, says Rosenstock, that nice habitat has been through some not-so-nice years—about 80 of them, actually. The city began beating up on its magnolia bog around World War I and has never really stopped. Until now. Park Service staffers, Agriculture Department specialists, and green-thumbed volunteers have spent chunks of the last four years cleaning out debris, replanting native flora, and testing new methods to stem erosion. Still, Rosenstock says, it will be years before the area is completely healed.
In the meantime, at least some living things seem to appreciate the habitat. Besides Rock Creek and Fort Dupont Parks, the magnolia bogs and the surrounding forested area constitute the most popular nesting spot in the city for migratory songbirds, according to the New Columbia Chapter of the National Audubon Society. The group’s 1999 bird survey says the bog hosts species from crows and jays to tufted titmice and blue-gray gnatcatchers. As Rosenstock walks through the bog, a green heron jets overhead against the pale-blue sky.
The heron, in fact, explains another motivation that pushes Rosenstock and a handful of volunteers to care about a bog that few locals could identify on a map. Without the bog’s protective canopy of magnolias, migrating birds would be evicted from yet another nesting ground along their annual route. “There was never a lot of this habitat, and now it’s threatened wherever it exists,” says Rosenstock, who says that D.C.’s bogs are some of just a few in the United States—and the only examples on Park Service land. “We are trying to preserve what’s not destroyed.”
Magnolia trees like to keep their lower extremities wet, but most humans are another story. When I show up to walk the bog with Rosenstock wearing sneakers and an old pair of jeans, his first move is to break out a pair of hip-high rubber waders for me. The dark-green boots are enormous and heavy, and it takes a few minutes of tugging before I manage to pull the floppy things into place.
The bog proves even harder to maneuver. Rosenstock moves along with the ease of an old pro. On the other hand, my every step begins with a battle to pull a boot from the dense, sticky mud. Around us, the shallow streams that wind through the bog barely gurgle, flowing nearly silently under the trees and ferns.
Eighty years ago, folks tromping through the bog might have worn combat boots instead of waders. Problems at the magnolia bog began after Woodrow Wilson led the U.S. into war with Germany in 1917, and the Army clear-cut most of the land to make room for the former Camp Simms. When World War II produced an even greater need for target practice, a long concrete bunker was installed nearby. Soldiers fired rounds and launched mortars over it into the opposing hillside. The barrage ruined the slope, and the naturally sandy soil began to wash away, taking vegetation along with it.
Meanwhile, runoff and construction threatened to change the naturally
acidic composition of the bog’s water.
The Park Service acquired the land in 1958, but restoration work did not begin until the ’90s. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, a National Park Service camp for city kids briefly took up residence on the far side of the bog, away from artillery-range contamination. The program, Summer in the Parks, was abandoned after a few years, leaving behind another crumbling cinder-block building and an ivy-covered lamppost.
When the campers stopped coming, the bog sat forgotten for years. “You could just walk through there and pick up bullets,” Rosenstock says, gazing at the weed-covered Army bunker.
In 1996, the Army Corps of Engineers finished removing shell fragments and detonating lingering live munitions on site. Rosenstock says the danger of lead contamination from bullets, which kept the park closed to the public for years, is also gone. Last summer, engineers trucked in topsoil and installed a web of biodegradable jute mats and coconut-fiber “logs” to terrace the hill behind the bunker and prevent further erosion. Agriculture Department botanists grew seedlings from the park’s own plants to revegetate the slope.
More drastic measures—like building drainpipes and storm-water ponds—could probably revive the bog faster, but Rosenstock believes the soft method is less disruptive. “To perfectly restore it, you’d have to make big scars during the operation,” he says. “It’s the infection you get afterwards that’s the problem.”
The area certainly looks pretty well restored. Native deer’s-tongue and bottlebrush grasses are taking hold where artillery shells once landed. Nearby, more seedlings have been planted in the former rifle-range area and in the rutted road that had to be cut for trucks hauling in dirt and taking out spent shells.
Rosenstock says the biggest threats to the bog’s health now come from a foe somewhat more prosaic than artillery shells—but just as serious from an environmental point of view: nonindigenous species. Several times a week, volunteers pull up invading plants on the former target-practice hill to make way for still more plantings later this year. The dirt road essentially serves as a red carpet for the kinds of opportunistic exotic species that can choke out native plants. Exotic flora, including Vietnamese stilt grass and mile-a-minute weed, flourish once they get going. A plant such as honeysuckle might sound vaguely romantic, but it’s “crap” that can take over, Rosenstock says.
Four years into the bog-revival campaign, the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency are apparently set to reopen the space as a park for the first time since it was closed for cleanup in 1994. They say they might do so as early as this summer.
That’s great news as far as east-of-the-river parks activists are concerned. “People feel that good days are coming,” says District native Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, co-chair of the Parks and Conservation Subcommittee of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the city’s oldest land-use planning advocacy organization. “The No. 1, unwritten goal is to maximize the utility of resources, including land. It’s great to have it, and it’s great that it’s established for recreational uses, but the goal nowadays is to provide upgrades and get people actually using it.”
Finally getting the park open to the public is a critical step in educating local residents about nearby resources, says Kinlow, who’s also a member of D.C.’s Sierra Club chapter. “People are surprised when they see it. Sometimes, particularly in that area, you are surprised at the variety of species. There are bald eagles in Washington, D.C., and people don’t even realize that. They don’t know about the hidden pockets of beauty.”
The reopening doesn’t mean that the magnolia trees are out of the woods just yet. Rosenstock, for one, is torn between fostering a sense of stewardship among city residents and protecting the bogs from pedestrians. He knows that making people love the park gives the area its best chance of long-term survival. But, he says, you won’t see him setting up a lemonade stand and inviting people in. “It is possible,” he says, “to love something to death.” CP