On an overcast but mild morning in late October, Nathan Harrington pulled up at a dead end in the southern reaches of D.C. His gray pickup truck carried a magnet with the name of the Ward 8 Woods Conservancy — the organization Harrington founded and directs — and a collage of left-wing and environmental bumper stickers.

His work crew of three men — Shaw Turner, Davon Abney and Henderson Blount — were already assembled. Soon they donned bright yellow vests and plunged into the woods. Above them towered magnificent sycamores, tulip trees and even a rare swamp white oak. Oxon Run, one of D.C.’s largest free-flowing streams east of the river, beckoned with wide sandbars and bluffs that evoke a far wilder place than the heart of a major city.

But on the ground, the illusion of remoteness vanished. Hundreds of empty bottles and food wrappers, many probably washed in by recent rains, were strewn about. Aggressive vines choked out much of the other vegetation.

Over the next 3½ hours, the crew — joined by James Penn, who was trying out for a job — piled Harrington’s truck high with dirty mattresses, rusted bike wheels, moldy drywall, window frames, something that looked like part of an engine, the end of a toilet plunger and dozens of bags full of bottles, chip wrappers and other detritus. They hauled out four shopping carts and left them on the side of the road for the local Giant to pick up.

Those aren’t the strangest finds the team has had in their two years cleaning up Ward 8’s forested parks. “You’d be surprised how many bowling balls there are,” Harrington said. This year, the team has collected more than 100,000 pounds of trash — about the weight of a tank.

“Pretty much, if you can think of it, we’ve found it in the woods,” Harrington said.

Blount, who had started the job just several weeks earlier, said he values keeping the woods clean. But he’s never actually spent time in them, or known anyone who has.

The group spending their Wednesday morning in the park hopes to change that. While low-income neighborhoods in many cities have fewer trees, the reality in D.C. is more complicated. Ward 8, the city’s poorest, has over 500 acres of forest; its total tree cover tops that of four wealthier wards. But Ward 8’s forests are littered, overrun by invasive species and all but closed to people, with virtually no signage and fewer than 1.5 miles of official hiking trails. By comparison, 1,754-acre Rock Creek Park has more than 36 miles of hiking trails.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken more lives in the majority-Black Ward 8 than anywhere else in the District, the inaccessibility of the ward’s forests has gone from an environmental injustice to a full-blown public health threat, Harrington and other advocates say. Opening them up, however, will require overcoming decades of neglect and underfunding.

“We’re the only environmental organization based in Ward 8, focused on Ward 8,” Harrington said. “Nobody else is paying attention to these woods.”

This summer, the National Park Service released an ambitious plan to transform one of the green spaces where the conservancy has been working.

Although Harrington had weighed in on the plan at several public meetings, he said he and his team were unaware of its release until informed by a reporter.

'We need more help'

A former teacher and tour guide, Harrington got his start as a woods advocate in 2011 with the Committee to Restore Shepherd Parkway. The group formed to clean up and activate a nearly 200-acre swath of federally owned woods that run much of the length of the ward, including near the Congress Heights house where Harrington has lived since 2009.

Harrington hoped he might convince the National Park Service to blaze hiking trails through one of the largest pieces of contiguous woodland in the District. But he said his entreaties received discouraging responses: The service lacked funds; the environment was too sensitive; and — most galling, he says — he was told local residents didn’t value or respect their parks.

“There’s all this resistance to changing the status quo,” Harrington said. “It’s what I can only call racism or racial bias.”

With backing from the Anacostia Coordinating Council, Harrington converted the committee to the Ward 8 Woods Conservancy in the summer of 2018 to fight what he had come to view as not just neglect, but injustice. “He started with absolutely no resources other than his two hands and his burning commitment to make things better,” said longtime Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell, who has supported and mentored Harrington and also serves as executive director of the council.

Harrington has since raised enough money from government grants and private foundations and donors — his budget for 2020 was $110,000 — to pay himself and his team of park stewards, usually around four strong. In January, Ward 8 Woods became an independent 501(c)(3).

Wages begin at $16 an hour for up to 20 hours a week. Harrington has prioritized hiring from the ward and giving a chance to people whose employment or, sometimes, criminal records might give other employers pause. He hopes his stewards can use the positions as steppingstones toward full-time green jobs — a vision he said will be advanced by a new partnership with the D.C.-based nonprofit Casey Trees.

Turner discovered the organization in August via Facebook. He previously worked in fast food, but he appreciates working outdoors.

“This is something new to me,” he said. “I would say it’s a blessing. It’s peaceful.”

But he said the five-man crew struggles to keep up with the volume of trash and invasive plants they confront. “We need more help.”

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the urgency Harrington said he feels to make the forest accessible. Trees provide cooling shade during D.C.’s hot summers and can ameliorate poor air quality, which has proved to be a risk factor for the virus. And with many social and physical outlets off limits, including many of the city’s indoor recreation facilities, time outdoors has become critical to millions of peoples’ physical and mental health regimens.

“I think the trees are like free medicine,” said Brenda Richardson, an environmental advocate and member of Friends of Oxon Run, a D.C.-owned Ward 8 park.

When the woods are inaccessible, however, people are pushed indoors toward sedentary lifestyles, Richardson said. Harrington hopes his group’s cleanups can lay the groundwork for new trails and an environmental education program that will help residents learn about and be comfortable in their forests.

Not everyone shares a desire for more heavily used parks. Kemi Morten, director of the Ward 8-based nonprofit Unfoldment and a Ward 8 Woods board member, fears that hikers could disturb the wildlife that inhabits Shepherd Parkway. She also worries about safety.

One thing everyone can agree on: Ward 8’s parks are underfunded.

'The environment is not the top priority'

National Capital Parks-East, which oversees federal parkland in the ward, manages more than 8,000 acres spread over 13 sites in Maryland and eastern D.C. — including Shepherd Parkway, Oxon Run Parkway and Fort Stanton — with a budget of less than $17 million and about 140 full-time employees. The Mall and Memorial Parks budget is more than double that. Rock Creek Park gets over $9 million for less than a quarter of the acreage and is aided by at least two long-established nonprofits: Rock Creek Conservancy, with a nearly $1 million budget of its own, and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

Harrington thought local leaders might be more amenable to his vision of investing in Ward 8’s forests. But in late summer, he said he received an email from a staff member at D.C.’s Urban Forestry Division strongly objecting to the idea of a hiking trail along Suitland Parkway, a large forested tract managed by the District. The residents had shown disrespect for the land, the official wrote, according to Harrington.

Harrington was frustrated. “That’s because there’s nothing worth respecting right now,” he said. “That sort of thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Earl Eutsler, head of D.C.’s Urban Forestry Division, emphatically disputed that Ward 8 has been neglected. He pointed out a publicly accessible fruit tree orchard the division has planted along Suitland Parkway and a grant from the District Department of Transportation, which oversees Urban Forestry, that funded Ward 8 Woods to clean up the Suitland Parkway bicycle trail. His team has increased street trees in the ward by a greater proportion than in any other ward, Eutsler added.

Duff McCully, a supervisory forester with the District who wrote the email that discouraged Harrington, praised Ward 8 Woods’ work and said the email expressed an opinion, not that of the Urban Forestry Division. He added that his views on a trail’s appropriateness are immaterial because a separate DDOT unit manages new trail construction on District land. Harrington is now preparing an application to that program.

Both Eutsler and McCully also noted with exasperation the large volumes of trash that routinely accumulate in the Suitland Parkway woods, including appliances and construction debris. Harrington has handed out literature encouraging park neighbors to avoid littering and report dumpers and has urged the District’s environmental crimes unit to step up enforcement.

Others agree that Ward 8’s forests are under-resourced but blame the neglect on agencies preferentially responding to more vocal constituencies in wealthier areas.

“It’s just a fact that the environment is not the top priority of political and civic leaders in this ward,” Pannell said. “Nathan hasn’t gotten the type of support I think he deserves.”

Ward 8 Woods has received awards from the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, but Pannell pointed out that neither came with funds to help Harrington grow his operation.

In July, the Park Service released a multimillion-dollar plan for Shepherd Parkway that includes both construction of new trails and restoration of existing ones, as well as overlooks, signage and better interpretation of the park’s Civil War-era forts. Park Service spokesman Sean McGinty credited Ward 8 Woods with caring and advocating for the park.

Harrington, when made aware of the plan, lamented a lack of clarity on whether unpaved hiking trails will actually be blazed in the wooded section of the park, providing the access he’s long pushed for. The Park Service hopes to begin developing the popular northern section of the park, known as Parklands, in 2021, but funding for some aspects of the plan still needs to be secured, McGinty said.

The federal Great American Outdoors Act, signed into law this summer, may provide new funding, Harrington hopes. But he’s not holding his breath. For now, he plans to continue his cleanups and keep laying the groundwork for closer connections between people and nature.

“Sometimes I look at Nathan and say he’s got the patience of Job in the Bible,” Richardson said. “He’s very patient and methodical in his approach to fulfilling his vision.”