Capitol Hill’s “Nature Preserve on the Anacostia” But for How Long?
An Environmental Article from


Tom Grahame
July 2006

How would you define a “wild urban park”? What would make it “wild”? How strongly would you care if there was one right under your nose on Capitol Hill -- within bicycling or walking distance?

It's a timely question. Science magazine (“Nature in the Metropolis”, May 27) editorializes that with so many people living in cities, “What remains of habitats and biodiversity within the city is of disproportionate importance.”

Many Capitol Hill residents, especially those in Hill East, have recently discovered the long-neglected narrow strip of land -- currently owned by the National Park Service -- within a few hundred feet of the Anacostia River’s west bank, stretching 3/4 of a mile northeast from Barney Circle (at Pennsylvania Avenue) toward RFK stadium. It has come to their attention because of the incipient development of the Hill East waterfront -- the old DC General Hospital campus (Reservation 13) -- as well as several transportation initiatives by the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT), all of which call for a Riverwalk suitable for bikers and pedestrians here.

Those who have taken the time to see how much wildness is here have been amazed. There are many types of large trees, with abundant, thick underbrush, perfect habitat for nesting birds.

Nature enthusiasts will enjoy the many catalpa trees, one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites. (I first saw one here, on Memorial Day weekend.) From mid-May through early June, catalpas are covered top to bottom with multiple bunches of 2-inch white flowers, patterned somewhat like iris flowers, with delicate purple lines and yellow patches. The largest trees might have thousands of flowers. Catalpas also feature distinctively large, tropical-looking leaves. Large patches of honeysuckle give a great aroma. From mid-April through mid-June (breeding season for birds), you will hear a cacophony of song from 20 or 30 types of birds -- see how many different songs you can recognize!

If you are a birder, you will be quite pleased to know that blue grosbeak, indigo bunting, brown thrasher, yellow warbler, black-billed cuckoo, willow flycatcher, great crested flycatcher, eastern kingbird, killdeer, cedar waxwing, and red-shouldered hawk are among over 40 bird species seen here, post-migration, on the Memorial Day and June 4 weekends. The many mulberry trees are a great food source for hungry nesting birds -- we even saw mallard ducks eating fallen fruit!

Hill East resident Beth Purcell proposes calling this surprisingly wild area the “Capitol Hill Nature Preserve.” It borders both sides of the RFK access road, which is now signed by DDOT as the interim Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The stretch nearest Barney Circle is more forest-like, good habitat for house and Carolina wrens, yellow warblers, cuckoos, and an amazing abundance of catbirds. Closer to the RFK parking lots, there are fewer trees and more brush -- good territory for indigo bunting, blue grosbeak, and brown thrasher.

Science's observation about the worth of urban wildness is timely, because the “Nature Preserve” may not be around much longer in its present form. The Reservation 13 plans and two large DDOT studies present slightly different visions, but DDOT personnel in community meetings consistently put forward both a park road running the length of the area, adjacent to the Riverwalk, and a new Massachusetts Avenue bridge (MAB). The MAB -- opposed by the community and desired apparently by few except DC officials -- and the park road and/or a Reservation 13 access road, in combination could destroy much of the brushy habitat where the most notable birds have been found. These transportation proposals would not only remove an uncertain amount of habitat, but would also change the outdoor experience from one of quiet enjoyment of nature, to one of hearing cars whiz past. DDOT officials say the park road is needed for park access, but just a few parking spaces near the East Capitol St. bridge would do the trick, similar to parking areas near the C&O canal.

Here’s a better alternative: keep the “Capitol Hill Nature Preserve” in its present wild state; eliminate any plans for roadways and bridges; and encourage some currently grassy areas to return to the brush that many birds find so alluring. Then use the “Nature Preserve” as a selling point for the expensive new housing to be built on Reservation 13. New buyers can tell their friends they live near this fabulous new nature preserve, right in the city, and they can jog, bike, bird, or walk it on the way to work.

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