John Burwell has appeared on our pages several times over the past three years for his work as a volunteer caregiver of our daylighted and restored streams, Broad Branch and Linnean. For example, we recently wrote about the signs he designed, built and posted at these two parks.
Burwell’s home is actually closer to the Pinehurst Branch, where he first put his 2009 Stream Team Leader training (from Rock Creek Conservancy) to the test. He was certified as a Weed Warrior (through the Rock Creek NPS) in 2012. And he now spends a significant part of his 12 to 20 hours a week in Rock Creek Park at Linnean and Broad Branch. Burwell often works alone, cutting invasive vines from trees and making sure tree guards and cages are firmly in place and the right size as the trees grow. He has has also guided several volunteers, including Girl and Boy Scouts and members of the Student Conservation Corps, in weed removal and trail improvement projects.
I first met Burwell at a Broad Branch cleanup, and had him walk with me along Linnean Stream. A few years later, Burwell, Mitch Baer and I cofounded the Linnean Park Partnership, so you could say I know him well. But there were a few things I was still curious about, so I asked him to answer a few questions about how he got started as a Rock Creek Park volunteer, and what drives him to donate so much of his time.
You started out working at the Pinehurst stream. What did you want to accomplish there?
Early in my volunteering with Rock Creek Conservancy in Pinehurst I was asked by the event leader, Alex Sanders, “What do you want to do in Pinehurst?” I had to think about my answer and intention. I decided, I wanted to make a difference! It’s taken almost 10 years, but working often on my own and with multitudes of volunteers and neighbors, Pinehurst was cleared of some of its heaviest infestations of invasives.
Once we cleared major invasives from several areas we partnered with Casey Trees, a nonprofit group with a mission to re-tree DC, and with 100 volunteers we planted 100 native species of trees and shrubs. Since then, more trees have been planted and returning native species have been discovered and protected.
The National Park Service trains volunteers like me to become Weed Warriors, trained to recognize the non-native plants and proper removal methods. Upon completion of training, Weed Warriors are issued special-use permits to remove specific species and are permitted to guide others to do the same under their supervision. Park visitors with the best intentions are not permitted to remove plants in Rock Creek Park.
So far in Pinehurst, 227 trees have been planted and an additional 451 are protected with deer guards or fencing. Now, in two areas there are young forests where there once was an impenetrable jungle of invasives. A favorite quote of mine is “The meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” Yes, it’s a metaphor but, lucky me, I now can sit in the shade under these young trees! But I will keep planting.
Eradication of invasive plants is not a realistic goal but with continued monitoring and control they can be managed and native trees and plants can succeed and shade the ground reducing sunlight that invasives need to grow.
How did you get drawn into the Broad Branch and Linnean streams?
Inspired and encouraged by what could be accomplished in Pinehurst, I had the confidence that the same results were possible in Broad Branch and Linnean Park. Although I will always be caring for Pinehurst tributary as it will always require some regular invasive removal, but with mono-cultures of bush honeysuckle, wineberry and porcelainberry gone, what’s left is not overwhelming.
I’ve been focused on Broad Branch and Linnean because the need is so great. Every season has different need but the majority of what I do is removing invasives to protect and encourage the growth of native plants. Again, with the help of multiple events with Weed Warriors and volunteers we removed vines, so much so in Broad Branch when we started, we created huge piles of debris along the alley behind the homes on Linnean Terrace. It was with your assistance that we enlisted help from the Mayor’s office to finally clear truckloads of vines.
What have you accomplished at these two streams?
When I first started working in Linnean Park at the Broad Branch Terrace entrance, several oak trees, planted in 2014, were engulfed with vines. They were bent over like little old people, hardly recognizable as trees under a mound of growth. Fortunately, they were still living and with vines removed and with binding, straps and stakes to straighten them, they have regained shape and are growing upright and reaching up toward the sky.
And I have advocated and assisted in the planting of 57 trees at Linnean Park and 31 at Broad Branch. Where there was a bare hill at the top of Linnean next to Broad Branch Terrace is all filled, in, as well as in the back of the Kuwaiti residence. And trees are growing next to the Linnean sidewalk and throughout Broad Branch.
Beyond planting there is always the protecting of the trees. This means installing and repairing fencing and clearing vines. That comes to 162 at Linnean and 154 at Broad Branch.
Also you have worked with a variety of youth groups. What have been their accomplishments?
I started working with Girl Scout Troop 42007 in 2019 when they were 2nd graders and their attention span and physical abilities had to be matched to the volunteer tasks. Later they were able to pull and bag garlic mustard. Now they are able to easily shovel and swing a pick axe digging holes for planting new trees which we’ve done. They’ve been a big help to me in Pinehurst, Broad Branch and Linnean Park caring for trees and removing invasives.
Two years ago, we were fortunate to have a crew from SCA Student Conservation Corps improve the Linnean Park trail with the installation of waterbars to direct stormwater off the trail, as well as installing gravel and raised flagstone stepping stones to keep visitors above standing water and mud.
In May of 2021, Boy Scouts cleared an area of invasives in Broad Branch along Nevada Avenue, and we planted trees and protected others.
And in January this year, Boy Scout Troop 100 constructed a new footbridge over the slowly sinking split-log footbridge. All park visitors are the lucky beneficiaries of this trail improvement for the community for years to come.
If a local group wants to organize a cleanup of our streams, what is the best way to get in touch with you?
If individuals or groups are interested in volunteering in Rock Creek Park or Linnean Park they can get in touch with me directly at [email protected]. Also, Rock Creek Conservancy has a calendar of hosted events throughout the park and a number of ways to volunteer. And you can fill out Rock Creek Park’s own volunteer interest form.
What keeps you going?
The reward of the work I do is the successful growth of trees and other natives. You can see all the new trees planted at Linnean and Broad Branch that are thriving. These parks are filling in and providing spaces of growing shade to walk through or sit beneath. Usually I’m too busy for sitting. It’s a joy for me to be in the forest and make a difference for the better of the health of these parks.