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Two Saturdays ago, Chris Shaheen and a couple of his neighbors descended on Rock Creek Park to paint the pretty trees. The paintbrush-wielding crowd had a nontraditional sort of art project in mind for the District’s forest primeval. Rather than touching brush to canvas, they opted to slop pigment directly onto the trees themselves. They moved quickly, splattering poplars and then birches with acrylic held in small plastic cups. By the end of the morning, they had swabbed several dozen trees.

Instead of bringing to life an enchanted forest of, say, red, white, and blue trees reaching for the sky, Shaheen and company left behind an assortment of basic browns—colors carefully selected to match the original color of each tree. “They [the National Park Service] gave us five colors,” says Shaheen. “Beech, poplar, white oak. We couldn’t find one to fit the red oaks, so we used two.”

The end result looked pretty much like any other slice of the woods. And that was exactly the point. What Shaheen and his friends were painting over with their natural browns was, in fact, more paint: “LBU,” “14th and Park,” and a handful of other insignia that Shaheen says are the spray-painted tags of gangs.

Just spitting distance from bustling city neighborhoods, Rock Creek Park—hard to see into, easy to escape to, never to be landscaped by humans—is a perfect incubator for urban ills. It’s just the kind of space busybody neighbors are likely to blame for all kinds of woes. “I got involved because I had heard a lot of complaints about trashing the park,” says Jacques Rondeau, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Mount Pleasant. “The complaints spanned the whole gamut of stuff—you know, sex, booze, whatever. But the graffiti showed up just over the past year and a half. It was something different, because it meant gang warfare.”

Concerned neighbors like Shaheen and Rondeau have badgered the National Park Service about the graffiti for more than a year and a half in their own Giuliani-esque battle to fight “quality-of-life” crimes. Though that urban theory may work on crowded streets—where the point of it is to bring more people out into an environment they all consider safe—it’s not so elegant in a place specifically designed to be quiet and lonely. It’s hard to beef up police presence in the woods. Though equipped to manage the worst calamities of the natural world, the National Park Service, it appears, is ill-suited to deal with some of the nonorganic problems that plague urban parks.

When concerned neighbors volunteered to help clean up, they were told that they should join Rock Creek’s existing Friends of the Park program. When they tried to move a circle of tree-trunk benches that they said served as a hangout for ne’er-do-wells, they were told that was simply an impossibility.

According to Rondeau, park officials agreed to the paint party only after Shaheen faxed a news article about a stabbing at nearby Bell Multicultural High School—a stabbing Shaheen attributed to the same type of gang activity that had been making its presence known on park trees.

“I’d give them a D to C at best in responding to things,” says Rondeau. “The enforcement side—the park police—they’re great. But on the other side, there’s not much responsiveness.”

Other neighbors are even less charitable. “The Park Service does not work with surrounding communities,” says one. “We had to be assertive. We had to insert ourselves into their system, rather than their embracing us.”

Rock Creek Park Assistant Superintendent Cindy Cox says community types are frustrated in part because the Park Service is running a nature preserve, not an urban war zone in need of policing. Cox says the reason neighbors aren’t entitled to pull, say, unwanted tree trunks out of the park is that the management philosophy behind Rock Creek is to let Mother Nature do things on her own time—a pace that tends to be considerably slower than urban dwellers are accustomed to, even by D.C. standards.

“Some people just don’t understand that that’s what we’re doing,” says Cox. “They think that that’s just neglect when in fact there’s a rationale behind it.”

It’s a philosophical tug of war: Should the park be a place that humans shape as an urban amenity, or should it be an antidote to development—an urban refuge where nature is left to its own devices?

Park officials charged with overseeing Rock Creek Park sometimes feel like the monkey in the middle. “Our mandate by Congress from 1890 is to preserve the natural treasures and curiosities of the District,” says Julia Washburn, chief of resource management and visitor services for Rock Creek Park.

Washburn’s Smokey-Bear outfit makes it pretty clear that her job is more about preserving plant life than neighborhood harmony, but she says she sympathizes with community concerns. “[Y]our basic needs have to be met—if you’re afraid for your health and safety, you can’t appreciate the beauty. I get frustrated, too, and I work here.”

“If people thought of it as an urban park, I don’t think you’d have such a problem,” says Rick Morgan of the People’s Alliance for Rock Creek, a group fighting for more nonautomotive access to the park. “It’s got to be more than a nature preserve. We want people in the park.”

Washburn acknowledges a slew of more practical problems hindering relations between hometown Washington and the nation’s fifth-oldest national park, such as the park’s budget and status within the Park Service. “It’s a very complex resource and a very small staff,” she says. “We simply can’t address all the demands.”

“A lot of the issues that get priority for us are the things that people with influential neighbors get screaming about,” she says. “Those are the political realities of this town—that’s not to say we like it.”

Rondeau says that he and the rest of his allies are one more natural resource the park service should tap into. “Thank goodness we have an activist community here,” he says “The bears are easier to handle than us, anyway. We complain a hell of a lot.”CP