A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Article Was Originally Published October 28, 2019 On Greater Greater Washington as part of the Urbanist Journalism Fellowship.
It’s 10:29 am on a Friday in October. Nathan Harrington, founder of Ward 8 Woods, a local DC nonprofit that aims to clean up the forests in Ward 8, has just finished staking a sign onto the side of the road that says, “Your Litter Hits Close To Home.”
For the past week, Harrington and his team have methodically worked this stretch of woods bordering the Suitland Parkway on 22nd Street SE, just down the road from where the District’s only halfway house, Hope Village, is located. Harrington pauses for a second to point out that the piles of bulging trash bags and stacked car tires staged at intervals along the street, are the collective result of his team’s work.
“That’s us,” he says.
When Robert Carpenter, the Ward 8 Woods supervisor, first started out with this organization about a year ago, people looked upon him and his staff of park stewards with suspicion. Some even called the police.
“For like the first three to four months of me working, the police was coming to every job site we was working at,” Carpenter explained.
Now that people have come to recognize what they are doing in the woods, Carpenter says they’ve been receiving much warmer welcomes. Ward 8 Woods’s current staff of park stewards are all black men.
Today, the Ward 8 Woods team plans to continue to remove trash and cut down invasive species in this small tract of forest.
By 10:34 am, Harrington, Carpenter, and one of Ward 8 Woods’s park stewards, Jomokin Dickens, assemble around boxes staged with their essential supplies: gloves, trash bags, Nalgene bottles filled with water, information pamphlets, and signs like the one Harrington staked earlier onto the side of the road.
Dickens grabs a stack of black trash bags while Carpenter pulls a couple of last drags off his cigarette, and throws a determined stare at the woods ahead of him. Harrington dons his reflective vest and plunges headfirst into the vegetation. Pulling on their work gloves, Carpenter and Dickens follow him in.
Upon entering the forest, they find empty coke cans, beer bottles, car tires, piles of brick, rotting shards of discarded plywood scattered everywhere. To top it off, there’s wisteria, kudzu, and English ivy plants suffocating native trees.
Harrington hacks away at a vine, while Dickens and Carpenter work together to remove a car tire from the forest floor. They’ve also found full abandoned cars and motorcycles.
Over the next 20 minutes, they fill one trash bag. And then soon after, another. And then another, and then another.
Where does all this trash come from? Harrington has his theories.
He thinks the building waste might come from small-scale construction companies illegally dumping. The discarded bags of household waste, he says, could be coming from apartments where there’s insufficient dumpster capacity for residents.
As for the weirdest thing they ever found? Dickens says it’s “dead cats in bags.”
The Ward 8 Woods team says they’re not so much concerned with where all the trash came from as much as they just want it gone. Apart from installing cameras or having eyewitness testimony or having police catching people in the act of littering, it’s hard to prove who did it. Besides, they say, they’re not out to get anyone. They just want people to know that the woods in Ward 8 aren’t the dumping grounds for anyone’s trash.
According to Carpenter, the work his team is doing with Ward 8 Woods is already working.
Recently, Carpenter’s been getting calls from people thanking him for the help he is doing for the community. He’s also been getting calls from people who want to know if there are any new openings.
Apart from routing litter and pulling out invasive plants, Ward 8 Woods also has to contend with other problems, such as deer. Since these animals have no natural predators in the area, they regularly feast on the native plants, and can undermine the work Ward 8 Woods is doing to protect the native flora.
The team has their eyes set on something else, further down the road. They say they’d like for Ward 8 Woods to become something like Rock Creek Conservancy, the full-time charitable nonprofit charged with restoring and preserving the 1,750 acres of parkland in Northwest DC.
Even though the area Ward 8 Woods covers is nowhere near as large as Rock Creek Park — the forests covered by them sit at just under 600 acres — their aspirations for their future are just as impressive.
Like Rock Creek Conservancy, Ward 8 Woods would like to have “a [permanent] paid staff that can coordinate invasive species removal and trash removal” and also, people who can dedicate themselves full-time to working “with landowners to develop public programs for environmental education and recreation,” according to Harrington.
This past summer, Ward 8 Woods received a $20,000 community stormwater solutions grant from DC’s Department of Energy and Environment. And the year before, the non-profit received about $25,000 in funding from the DC Office of Planning. But Harrington says his group still needs more money.
Over the course of one year, they’ve raised about $2,600 of their $3,500 target on GoFundMe. Rock Creek Conservancy, in comparison, pulled in about $650,000 in grants and contributions in 2017, according to its IRS statement.
Harrington says part of the challenge comes from the fact that Ward 8 isn’t part of an affluent community. He is quick to point out the fact that their neighbors in Northwest DC generally have much more disposable income than those who live in Southeast. It might be easier to receive donations from neighbors when they have more to give, he speculates.
In the meantime, the Ward 8 Woods staff can be found organizing community clean ups on select weekdays and on weekends. You can find more information about the group at visitward8woods.org.