A New National Park Service Leader for the Anacostia

Anacostia Area Superintendent Tara Morrison. Photo: National Park Service

Late last year, the National Park Service (NPS) announced that the new superintendent for the National Capital Parks-East would be Tara Morrison, until then the superintendent of Rock Creek Park. It was a small change in location but a big change in responsibilities, with her new area encompassing not only the 1,200 acres of Anacostia Park but a number of contaminated sites along the river (including the riverbed itself) and Oxon Cove. It also includes the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Frederick Douglass House, the Carter Woodson Home, and the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, as well as the lands around and connecting the ring of earthen forts from Civil War times on the Anacostia side of the river.

Morrison has a lifetime of experience dealing with urban and African-American history and parks. She was raised in Bridgeport, Ct., an industrial city with miles of beaches on Long Island Sound. Recently she returned and took time to run along Seaside Park. Her Park Service career began with an archeology internship here in DC, and went on to sites in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as tracing the routes and remnants of the Underground Railroad of escaping slaves from Maine to West Virginia.

Now that she has been in place for a number of months, we thought it was time to visit and ask her impressions and her plans for the Anacostia. We have often heard the river and park restoration activities along the Anacostia described as an effort to establish a “signature urban park.” I asked her what she envisioned from that phrase. She sees it as an ongoing effort to balance nature, recreation, and education with the river and its parklands seen as parts of the surrounding neighborhood. The challenges are to have people begin to believe that the river and the parklands are integral parts of their communities.

How to do that has been part of the lessons learned from the National Urban Waters Initiative, an effort undertaken two years ago by the Environmental Protection Agency in 10 cities to get a handle on how to fit the pieces together. Here in DC the NPS is the lead for the Anacostia River Urban Waters Initiative. Communication and education are big parts of it, Morrison believes. City people have to know not only what is there; they also need to know and be comfortable with when it is safe to do what. When are the fish OK to eat? Where are the areas where contamination levels are dangerous? Are there issues of criminal activity? How do we provide access while preserving the natural beauty that is attracting people?

None of these has easy answers. The key is information and interaction with those living nearby. In a way it is refreshing to know that we share these issues with many other urban areas where it is understood that healthy parks need healthy people and vice versa.

Of course, the National Park Service is not alone in working out these issues with the public. The District’s Department of Energy & Environment and Department of Transportation, the US Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland National Park and Planning Commission upstream, and many others have roles.

To Morrison the key is for all be at the table and willing to engage and pool resources to meet public needs and desires. For example, every one of these agencies has responsibilities for the identification, source reduction, and removal of toxic contamination in river sediments and at a number of adjacent sites. The need will be to engage the stakeholders early and often to assure participation in the selection of remediation alternatives. Morrison has recently filled a new position of public information officer to stay on top of these contamination issues and ensure public understanding and involvement in choosing remedies.

We talked about some specific areas along the river such as the grounds around RFK Stadium. Although the National Park Service has given Events DC, a city agency, a long-term lease covering the stadium grounds from Benning Road to Reservation 13 (the old DC Hospital area), there is still an interest to assure what Morrison calls “a sustainable plan for a recreational asset that serves the communities and the city.” Similarly, although Kingman and Heritage islands adjacent to RFK Stadium have been turned over to the city, whatever is done there must be integrated with plans for recreation and education in the adjacent areas on both sides of the river.

Morrison sees the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens as a greatly unappreciated and underused asset that could be the focus of expanded educational and recreational opportunities, especially for young people in the surrounding neighborhoods. It is the only facility in the entire National Park Service that focuses on water-based plants. She is about to begin planning to define programs that could draw visitors and improve their access and use of this natural resource.

Finally, there is the challenge of what to do with the old Kenilworth city dump property that has been used for years as soccer and football playing fields, which have fallen into neglect along with some concern about toxicity in the soil. The trail north of Benning Road that opened last year was routed up high and around the area, with the thought that once the remedy was installed for the landfill the trail could be relocated along the water.

There is no end to the challenges and the need to manage coherently the many pieces of this Anacostia puzzle. Superintendent Morrison seems up to the task. “Lots of folks want to help,” she says, “both in Anacostia Park and at the various historic houses in the region. We need to find new ways to engage the communities on both sides of the river. We should aim for a strong sense of stewardship through volunteer efforts that are organized in ways that encourage participation and make the tasks feel doable. And we need to engage school groups and other youth-based organizations to build an early sense of stewardship for these natural and recreational areas, so that as they grow they will realize their importance in their lives.”

Just as Bridgeport and Long Island Sound did for her.

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River, and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.