Valley Terrace residents from left to right: Eve Conyers, Rachel Mann, Nayla Parker, James Earle, and Andrew McDermon.
When Rachel Mann bought a townhouse in Valley Terrace about a decade ago, she loved the tall trees on Oxon Run Parkway, right behind her house.
"One of the biggest draws for me was the beautiful forest-scape that was behind us. You don't see that in D.C.," Mann says.
But Mann and her neighbors in the Ward 8 neighborhood say the National Park Service, which owns the park, is failing to maintain it. They say people from outside the neighborhood regularly dump trash and debris in the park, and that NPS doesn't clean it up or try to stop the dumping.
"Over the years, the woods have just really been filled with trash and old stuff," says Doris Brady, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. "People have used it as a dumping ground."
Dumped trash in Oxon Run Parkway.
Brady says her efforts to get the park cleaned up landed her in a web of bureaucracy. She called the D.C. Department of Public Works first. "Of course, they said that it was not their problem, that it was handled by the the National Park Service."
Brady says she called multiple NPS numbers, but "never, ever got a call back."
Eva Thompson, who has also lived in Valley Terrace for more than 30 years, tells a similar story of trying to get a response after a tree fell on her property from NPS land. "It was basically the run-around. After a point when you've been running around so long, you just leave it alone and take care of it yourself."
And that's what the residents are doing. Without a response from the NPS, they have taken it upon themselves to clean up the woods. During the pandemic, they began organizing through Facebook to go into the park and remove debris.
Resident James Earle says more trash keeps appearing.
James Earle, a relative newcomer who's lived in the neighborhood for 6 years, says he started posting in the Facebook group to organize regular trash pickups. He says they've collected pretty much anything you can think of: bicycles and tricycles, baby strollers, rugs, furniture, building materials, and household trash.
"I mean, you name it, I picked it up," says Earle, remembering a particularly unpleasant category of trash he's picked up. "Used diapers. Yeah."
Earle says the cleanups have been an "incredibly positive experience" that have helped bring the neighborhood together. But he says, that doesn't absolve the federal government of responsibility to take care of its property. "It's nice that we can come together to try and solve it, but we can't always solve everything as a small community, says Earl. "Sometimes it takes the resources of the federal government."
NPS did not respond to a request for comment before publication.
This weekend, in observance of Juneteenth, Valley Terrace residents are holding another cleanup in the park and neighborhood, as well as a block party.
Mann says she sees a connection between the new federal holiday marking the end of slavery in the U.S., and the fight for environmental justice.
"You may be given freedom. If you're not able to live and thrive, it means nothing," Mann says. "That includes having food, shelter, a safe environment, and a clean environment."
"In my opinion, NPS is not really being a good neighbor," Brady says. She frames it as in issue of environmental racism — such neglect, she says, would not happen in a wealthier, whiter part of the city.
"I thoroughly believe that it is because of where we are located. They seem to think that if you live in far Southeast, you like trash." And that, she says, is "very far from the truth."
Mann voiced similar sentiments. "Ward 8 has been neglected in so many different ways," she said. "Our environment is just as important as making sure that Ward 8 is no longer a food desert. Our environment is just as important as making sure that there is affordable and comprehensive health care for all people. This is all a part of social justice and environmental justice, and it's inextricably linked."
The problems of poorly maintained federal parkland and illegal dumping are not unique to Valley Terrace. Ward 8 is dotted with hundreds of acres of forested National Park land. The organization Ward 8 Woods has collected 500,000 pounds of trash from those parks since 2018. The organization is participating in Saturday's cleanup at Valley Terrace.
Nathan Harrington, a Ward 8 resident who founded the group, says NPS land in the ward has suffered decades of neglect. "It's full of trash, it has invasive species run amok, and it's not really seen by most residents as a resource because it is not accessible."
In Oxon Run Parkway, there are no marked trails or signage, a fact that discourages residents from exploring the natural beauty hidden behind invasive vines.
"It's incredibly unique. There is a magnolia bog in the parkway, there is some beautiful upland areas, and there's a remarkable bit of meandering stream bed with all these big sandbars and islands," Harrington says.
Harrington says he doesn't blame NPS, which, he says, is grossly underfunded and understaffed. "For every one person, they're trying to do what would reasonably be the job of five or ten people."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.