Between the Lines: Forging a Future for a ‘Forgotten River’

May 1, 2019

SEJournal Online Between the Lines banner

A great blue heron on the Anacostia River. Environment writer Krista Schlyer lives near and kayaks on the polluted river. She found it teeming with life. Photo: Krista Schlyer. Click to enlarge.

Between the Lines: Forging a Future for a ‘Forgotten River’

How can a major river flowing through Washington, D.C. — one of the world’s most high-profile news hubs — become so overlooked and neglected? Conservation photographer-writer Krista Schlyer gives readers a look back at the Anacostia River’s sad legacy of pollution and neglect, its history of environmental injustice, and its hope, inspiration and largely unseen beauty in her latest book, “River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia.”

“River of Redemption” is a gorgeous, large-format book filled with incredible photos and prose that should remind environmental journalists how there are so many wonderful stories to be told about urban rivers practically in their own backyards. Like so many other great environmental book authors, Schlyer — who now lives in D.C. — looked to Aldo Leopold’s classic “A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There” for guidance, while also explaining the impact of figures like Rachel Carson on the Anacostia and on other parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

But more recently Schlyer’s attention has also been redirected to the U.S.-Mexico border, with President Donald Trump’s latest insistence that the United States build a wall between the two countries, a dispute that’s been hot in the news and resulted in the longest government shutdown in America’s history. Schlyer has been active in opposing such a barrier for years, pointing out environmental pitfalls in her critically acclaimed 2012 book, “Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall,” which has factored into discussions on Capitol Hill and appeared in this Spring 2013 SEJournal review.

Schlyer, a senior fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers whose work has been published by the BBC, The Nature Conservancy, High Country News, The National Geographic Society and Audubon, is a recipient of the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, the National Outdoor Book Award and the Vision Award from the North American Nature Photography Association.

She gave this interview to SEJournal BookShelf Editor Tom Henry.

In your latest book, you give readers a visual, historical and ecological look at Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia River. What made you want to tell the story?

Over the past eight years, my time spent documenting the Anacostia has offered endless surprise. I wanted to share some of the unexpected wonder I have found in this highly impaired urban landscape. It began in 2010, when the International League of Conservation Photographers asked me to participate in a project documenting the Chesapeake Bay watershed. During that project, I kayaked on the Anacostia — my own home watershed — for the very first time in more than 10 years of living in Washington, D.C. And on that first paddle, I couldn't believe what I had been missing. All I'd ever heard was that the Anacostia was completely despoiled, a lost cause. But when I got out there, I saw beaver, turtles, bald eagles, osprey, heron and so much more. The so-called "forgotten river" was not forgotten by every Anacostia resident. I also saw pollution, degradation, a profoundly impaired ecosystem. But I was struck mostly by how much life there was.  

I had spent much of the previous years documenting the wildlife of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, but had been ignoring the wild community in my own backyard. And it seemed that much of the Anacostia watershed's human population was equally unaware of the treasure in our midst. So I set out to see what I could see and share it with others, to communicate the tremendous natural value of this place.

What makes the Anacostia unique? And why has a waterway passing through the heart of our nation's capital — one of the world's most vibrant cities for journalism — been so overlooked?

The author Krista Schlyer. Photo: Nathan Dappen. Click to enlarge.

In some ways, the Anacostia is similar to so many other urban rivers: Many of our cities were built on the backs of their rivers, to the near ruin of many of the nation's great waterways. But the Anacostia is distinct because in some ways a nation was built on the back of this river.  Much of the wealth that poured into America in colonial times was from tobacco exports. One of the busiest seaports in the colonies was Bladensburg, Md., right on the Anacostia, because Prince George's County, where I live, and where the bulk of the Anacostia watershed lies, was one of the largest producers of tobacco in the British empire. Demand for tobacco in Europe made the plant so valuable that it was actually legal tender, cash money. So watershed forests were torn down, and slaves were shipped in to grow the wealth that helped build the United States.

The Anacostia is also unique because most of the land along the main stem of the river is federal park land, managed by the National Park Service since the 1930s. The Park Service has had a checkered record of stewardship of this landscape, at various times lending it out for parking lots, the  Redskins’ stadium, a prison and a burning dump. But because it was federal park land, some of it was preserved in a relatively wild state. So long stretches of the river, right in the heart of Washington, D.C., seem like they could be in the middle of West Virginia. Just an astounding natural treasure for an urban river.

About journalism, and the strange silence around the plight of the Anacostia, I think like so many things, our concept of "news" means that once something has been reported on, it is no longer a story. Once a river is declared polluted, that's that, that becomes its identity and the world of news moves on. This river was built over millennia, destroyed over centuries and its restoration will take centuries upon centuries, if we are wise enough to make that happen. These long marches toward justice hold little currency in our news media culture, perhaps especially in Washington, D.C.

Click here to see a slideshow of Schlyer's Anacostia River images.

You were inspired to do this book by Aldo Leopold's classic, “A Sand County Almanac.” What fascinates you about Leopold's book?

Leopold knew the Sand County land as a family member or treasured friend. He knew when the geese would be returning and how their arrival would change the land culture; he understood which seasons were kindest to mice and which to hawks; he knew when the aquatic plants would bloom along the creek and paint its banks in color. He lived in wonder of his own backyard because he knew it so very well, because he had made himself a part of the living landscape.


'I wanted to create a book that would offer people a way in,

a way to enter the world of the Anacostia

and feel what it's like to be a part of this landscape.'


We live in a world of alienation from the land and nature in general. To me, this is the reason why the land suffers our indifference and why we ourselves suffer a poverty that we don't even have a name for. When I reread Leopold's “Almanac” four years ago, I realized I myself had never had such a relationship with the land on which I lived, and in the process of trying to rectify that reality, I came to believe that our alienation from the land lies at the heart of many of our environmental woes. That detachment is growing, and I'm not sure there's any stopping it. But I wanted to create a book that would offer people a way in, a way to enter the world of the Anacostia and feel what it's like to be a part of this landscape.

The tragic death of Kelvin Tyrone Mock, a 7-year-old African-American child who was burned to death on Feb. 15, 1968 after being exposed to lingering fires in an area known as Kenilworth Park, obviously made an impression on you. You eloquently described him as the "forgotten child of a forgotten river" and aptly questioned why the fires — and all of the illegal dumping — were condoned in a residential area just blocks away from two elementary schools. What did that say about race relations at the time, coming six weeks before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis? And what lessons about Kelvin's death are still causes of concern more than 50 years later, in 2019, about environmental justice everywhere?

I think of everything I've learned about the Anacostia, Kelvin's death was the most impactful for me personally. Kelvin Tyrone Mock died on National Park Service land, because the Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed the District to dump its garbage on the riverside and set it on fire six days a week for more than 25 years. This would never have happened in Georgetown or Bethesda or any of the white and/or wealthy areas of Washington, D.C., but it was allowed on the east side of the Anacostia from the 1940s to 1960s.

Kelvin went to school a couple of blocks away from the dump, around the same time that Martin Luther King Jr. was leading marches for the rights of sanitary workers in Memphis, where he was ultimately killed for giving voice to the struggle for environmental, racial and economic justice. In some ways, we've come so far since then. But in some ways not much has changed. As of a couple of years ago, the Park Service still treated Kenilworth Park as little more than a dump. That is starting to slowly change, but to date there has never been a real reckoning for the park service's role in Kelvin's death, or in the pollution of the Anacostia due to this agency's negligence on many areas of the river landscape.

We see this injustice repeated throughout the United States and the world; wealth affords people the privilege of living in healthy environments. The poor — and often, people of color — suffer the cost of our abuse of the land. This is integral to our power structures, and any real move toward justice will require a paradigm shift in the capitalist system. We have a long, long way to go.

You make the point in your book that Rachel Carson was an Anacostia watershed resident when she exposed the dangers of DDT in her landmark book, “Silent Spring,” and that she even wrote much of it from her home along the northwest branch of the Anacostia River. Though “Silent Spring” wasn't about the Anacostia per se, doesn't it seem odd that her mere connection to the watershed wouldn't have shone a brighter light on it?

It does, absolutely. This still amazes me. I lived in the watershed for a decade before I learned “Silent Spring” was written within its boundaries. Carson's house is still there, on the Northwest Branch, a humble home with a tiny little plaque that denotes its historical significance. It seems that everyone would know about it, but few do. Perhaps because Carson's legacy was international, her presence on the local river landscape was overlooked. She was a citizen of the world, and she died shortly after the book was published, so her story in the Anacostia watershed ended before it could fully take shape. But she has had a huge impact on the Anacostia, along with rivers worldwide.  Much of the money and legal work that has brought the river to what it is today is tied to the work she did many decades ago. But few people know that this very river was her home and I have to believe it was an inspiration to her.

One of your earlier books, “Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall,” is as timely as ever now, even though it came out almost seven years ago. Tell us how you became fascinated by not only the politics along the U.S.-Mexico border, but — especially — the often-overlooked environmental aspects of it.

Yes, “Continental Divide” is almost ready for a second edition, both because there are few remaining copies in my publisher's warehouse, and because so much has changed over the past few years. I started working on the border in 2007 when I was researching a story for Wildlife Conservation magazine. The story was about a herd of bison that traveled regularly between Chihuahua, Mexico and New Mexico. This was shortly after the Secure Fence Act was passed in 2006, which mandated the construction of about 700 miles of border barrier.

My research found the bison's food and water resources were split by the international boundary, and that their ability to travel back and forth was key to their survival. Construction hadn't really begun at that point. But it was clear that when it did, thousands of species would be at risk, many of which were already endangered. So I dove in and have never really surfaced. And in the past few years, things have grown more and more complicated.

You've been back along the border several times since that book came out, documenting some of the turbulence and the history in the making. That includes several real-time stories on Facebook Live. What changes have you seen over the seven years since your book came out and what concerns you the most about what's happening there?

“Continental Divide” was published in 2012. Most of the Secure Fence Act barrier — about half solid wall and half vehicle barrier — had been built by then. The construction was expedited by former President George W. Bush and former President Barack Obama's use of the Real ID Act provision, which allowed the waiver of any law (short of the Constitution) to build border barrier. As the wall went up, stories began to surface about wild species facing increased mortality and even localized extinctions, and the rate of human migrant deaths began escalating. But a [much longer] border wall had become the go-to bargaining chip on Capitol Hill. In 2013, in an effort to broker a deal for immigration reform, Senator Chuck Schumer offered another 700 miles of wall to entice Republicans to support the reform bill. Every Democratic member of the U.S. Senate voted for the immigration reform bill and the "border surge" that was supposed to make it palatable for Republicans. It was never taken up by the U.S. House. After that, talk of wall expansion quieted down for a bit. Public perception of walls was already starting to change, from a majority supporting a wall in 2010, to a majority opposing by 2015.

But Donald Trump knew that the appetite for a wall had not waned among some populations, and he made it a centerpiece of his campaign. Democrats spoke vehemently against it during the election cycle. But when it came time to pass a budget in 2017, they included $1.6 billion with little discussion, and did the same in 2018 and slightly less in 2019, $1.3 billion.


'It concerns me that such a controversial project,

built with taxpayer dollars and without the guidance of federal law,

should be done in such strict secrecy.'


Click here to see a slideshow of Schlyer's Borderlands images.

I was there when construction started in New Mexico in spring 2018, and in South Texas in February 2019. All of the construction at this point has been on federal land, because there are fewer legal hurdles. New Mexico construction took about 20 miles of wild land that was a travel corridor for endangered Mexican gray wolves and made it impassable to terrestrial species. In South Texas, Border Patrol began cutting down a rare forest on the La Parida tract of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge. This tract contains some of the last remaining acreage of an endangered ecosystem essential to birds and butterflies, several endangered reptiles and a last hope of a travel corridor for ocelots and jaguarundis, two of the United State's most endangered cats. Hundreds of miles more are planned all along the border, often in some of the most important locations for wildlife conservation.

When I was down covering the start of wall construction under the Trump administration, the site was heavily militarized, and no one from the press or public was allowed access. I was chased off several times and threatened with arrest. It concerns me that such a controversial project, built with taxpayer dollars and without the guidance of federal law, should be done in such strict secrecy. It really makes me wonder where we are headed as a nation.

As someone who's studied the border from both a human and environmental perspective, where do you see this controversy going? Is there any way out of this crisis, whether it's as real or as manufactured for political gain as each side argues it is?

The greatest hope lies in a growing awareness of the damage border barriers do, both to the wild world and human communities. But any shift in border policy depends on public awareness converting to public action. What I've found is that most people don't believe that outreach to Congress makes any difference, a reality that is worrisome on many levels for a democracy. The greatest challenge for the border is misinformation, most of it coming from politicians on both sides of the aisle, but also from news organizations reporting from press releases. After the 2018 budget, Senator Chuck Schumer and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi cheered a supposed victory over Trump, saying they had fought and won and no wall funding was approved. This was not true, but almost every major news organization repeated it. I went to visit their offices, and challenged their declarations. They stuck with their semantic argument, saying the funding was only for border fence. Most of these politicians have supported border barrier funding for the past decade. They are not going to stop doing it until their constituents demand they stop, but their constituents don't have time to fact-check both their politicians and the New York Times and the Washington Post. Anything can change, but it's hard at this moment to see a way forward that doesn't include hundreds of miles more of wall.

You've always done a great job of merging essays and visuals. What advice do you give to would-be authors and others who want to do more impassioned storytelling?

You know, I think it’s all about time. As the saying goes: “Find what you love, and let it kill you.” Seriously, if you find something that interests you, find a way to give it time. Weeks, months, years. I find the deeper you go, the deeper you want to go, and connections that you never saw before begin to make themselves known. We live in a complex world, and the extent that we can help others understand those complexities will determine how wisely we face the considerable challenges that lie ahead.

Slideshow: Anacostia River

SEJournal Online - Krysta Schlyer - Anacostia River

Back to Q&A


Slideshow: Borderlands

SEJournal Online - Krysta Schlyer - Borderlands

Back to Q&A



* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: