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'Urban oasis' in DC's only State Conservation Area

Mayor Bowser investing nearly $5 million towards improvements on Anacostia River islands near RFK Stadium

WASHINGTON D.C., DC — We are all looking for an escape. Americans are bursting out of their homes as their bodies are flush with antibodies from the coronavirus vaccine. They're looking to release pent-up energy and take a vacation, perhaps to the Caribbean.

Another creature, blissfully unaware of COVID-19's wrath, is coming from the Caribbean and searching for respite in Northeast DC. It's making the first trip of, what conservationists hope, are many to come in the future. 

Biologists in D.C. got their first look recently at a great white egret, fresh off its long flight from South America or the Caribbean. It swooped low across the waters of the Anacostia River and then gained elevation over Kingman Island framing itself in the foreground of the dilapidated RFK Stadium and then vanishing from view.

We all stopped and soaked in the majesty of this exotic bird while collectively wondering why its flight of thousands of miles would carry it to this exact spot.

The answer lies in the progress the District is making in conservation efforts to restore and protect an overlooked area that offers a delightful marriage of options for D.C. residents and visitors from around the area.

"Nobody realizes this is here and more people are discovering it. And that's a good thing," said Lee Cain, the Director of Kingman and Heritage Islands.   

The story of DC's Kingman and Heritage Islands begins nearly 100 years ago during an Army Corps of Engineers dredging project which created the man-made islands as a way to ensure continued navigability along the Anacostia. 

In 2018, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser designated portions of both islands as a State Conservation Area and the southern end of Kingman Island as a Critical Wildlife Area. During that same announcement, Bowser pledged $4.7 million for recreational and educational improvements on the islands. 

"We want to restore the native species and wildlife. We want to build up more spaces for environmental education and programming," said D.C. DOEE's Allyson Criner-Brown. "We want people to come and kayak on the river. We want people to do birding." 

There are a number of free programs available to D.C. residents including free fishing workshops led by DOEE called "Fishing in the District".

Opportunities also include free kayak rental as part of the Anacostia Green Boats program and paid youth internships with a group called the "Kingman Rangers."

"We want you to come and hike. We want you to be able to sit and reflect," said Criner-Brown.

Criner-Brown says Mayor Bowser has demonstrated a strong commitment to the islands. The fiscal year budget for 2022 includes funding for a Kingman Rangers program that will train and employ at least three full-time and two seasonal rangers. Their work will include environmental restoration, education, interpretation, and maintenance of amenities on the islands, according to Criner-Brown.  

"Both the National Park Service and the District government are doing a lot of work to restore these areas. And both make them places where the wildlife and the native plants can have a place but also where people can come and use that space," said DOEE wildlife biologist Damien Ossi. 

City leaders and those with DOEE have laid out a vision for the future of conservation, education and entertainment on the islands with an ambitious three-year plan. 

"The wildlife opportunities that are here, I want it to have a positive impact on their physical health and mental well-being," said Cain. "This is not like anything else in the city that I see every day. This is something different."

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