by Steve Dryden
Wilson High School is probably the only educational institution in Washington, DC with a federally-protected nature sanctuary on its campus.
Hidden under layers of vines at the bottom of a deep ravine between the Wilson Aquatic Center and Albemarle Street is a small remnant of a major tributary of Rock Creek. Called Soapstone Creek, the tributary’s waters flow nonstop, fed mostly by a pump that discharges groundwater from around the Wilson campus buildings. Never more than a few inches deep – except during heavy rainstorms – the creek is comparatively clean, with no sewage pipe leaks that often pollute other city streams.
Long used as a dump for everything from old tires to construction debris and lawn furniture, the block-sized Soapstone ravine was first adopted by Wilson faculty and students in the year 2000 as a possible outdoor laboratory and study area for environmental science classes. Besides having value as a small wildlife sanctuary, the site offered lessons about the natural history of Washington DC, the degradation of urban streams, and restoration techniques to repair some of the damage caused by decades of uncontrolled commercial and residential development.
In 2014, a new restoration effort was launched in conjunction with a special environmental science course on urban ecology that was offered at Wilson during the 2014-15 school year.
Students in the class monitored the creek and the stream bank throughout the school year, measuring the flow rate and temperature of the groundwater piped into the stream, analyzing the chemical characteristics of the water, and taking an inventory of plant species on the site. They also prepared charts on the bird life observed in the area, animals seen, and researched a timeline of development in Tenleytown and its effect on the creek.
The final class project involved a set of recommendations by the students for restoration plantings by species. Their entire report on the site, released in October 2015, can be downloaded here.
Several clean-up events and invasive plant removal activities were held during the past two years, allowing native wildflowers and tree saplings to flourish around the site. Whole Foods Market at Tenley supported the effort with a $2,500 grant. Plans are being developed to plant new native trees over the next year.
The creek segment and the woods around it are on land purchased by the federal government for the Fort Circle Drive system, a proposed road connecting Civil War forts – such as nearby Fort Reno – that form an arc across the District. Though the plan was never realized, the properties acquired for the parkway are still under federal control and nominally administered by the National Park Service. As with the Civil War forts, also under Park Service administration, the properties are neglected due to lack of funding.
The headwaters of Soapstone Creek include Tenleytown’s Fort Reno Park – the highest point (409 feet above sea level) in Washington, DC. The creek remnant next to Wilson is clearly visible on the 1862 “City of Washington” map by EG Arnold, showing Reno and other Civil War forts.
The historical presence of running water is testimony to the observation of geologists that Washington is a very “wet” city with an active hydrological network that homeowners know all too well. The creek’s name refers to the soft metamorphic rock found in deposits near the stream.
Today, the Soapstone ravine at Wilson is the site of an ongoing battle between aggressive non-native plants like Japanese knotweed, porcelainberry and English ivy, and such common regional wildflowers as jewelweed, Indian hemp and mayapple. In mid-summer the site is deceptively lush and green, covered in many places by a blanket of invasive plants.
The ravine in fact is at risk of becoming what ecologists call a biological “desert.” Essential components of the wildlife food chain – bees, flies, moths, butterflies, caterpillars and others – can find little to eat when the plants that they evolved with over millennia are unavailable. This in turn makes the area less appealing for many birds, which depend on insect life as well as native berries and seeds for food. The invasive cover smothers tree seedlings and kills portions of the canopy by blocking sunlight.
For many decades the Soapstone site was in the “backyard” of a venerable 1890 home that was built by one of Tenleytown’s first family doctors, John Chappell. At the time of the home’s construction, the area was largely farmland. As Tenleytown grew into a dense commercial and residential neighborhood, the Chappell house passed through a series of owners and its condition gradually declined. The land became a sought-after prize for developers who could buy the property and maximize its value, as it was located only a half block from the entry to the Tenleytown Metro station.
The sale of the property in 1999, the demolition of the Chappell house, and the developer’s plan for a 26-unit condominium complex with virtually no open space alarmed neighbors, who protested to the DC Zoning Commission. The developer eventually reduced the project to six townhouses, and secured approval. As a condition, the commission required the developer to plant new trees and protect existing ones, and assist in the removal of the invasive species.
The proposed development also mobilized teachers and students at Wilson, who informally adopted the Soapstone ravine and begin removing trash and the invasive plants. Unfortunately, due to the difficulties of maintaining a purely volunteer campaign, these efforts flagged. Then, construction of the new Wilson aquatic center, whose south wall was just a few feet from the ravine, focused attention elsewhere.
By the spring of 2014, just about every square foot of the stream bank was occupied by at least one (and sometimes more) invasive species, and enormous mats of vines were growing on any tree canopy exposed to the sun. Large amounts of trash littered the grounds and there were signs the overgrown thicket near the bus stop was being used as homeless campsite.
A very large white oak, singled out for special care under the terms of the zoning agreement, was clearly dying (it was removed by the Park Service in July 2015, and an informal count of the rings on the stump put the tree’s age at 150 years).
On the plus side, the site features a number of mature trees, ranging from tulip poplar to sycamore, and healthy groves of native wildflowers. More than a dozen species of birds, including a red-tailed hawk, were observed. The presence of constantly flowing water enhances the value of the site for wildlife.
Steve Dryden taught the special urban ecology course at Wilson High School during the 2014-15 academic year. He is director of the Rock Creek Songbirds habitat restoration project in Rock Creek Park (audubondc.org/rock-creek-songbirds).