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Natural Histories of the Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Memorials

Paul Kelsch, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Fellow 2014–2015

My investigation of these two presidential memorial forests took a dramatic turn based on an early discovery, one that has led to a new chapter for my book on the Potomac River landscape. The two forest memorials are each on islands in the Potomac River, and my discovery was simply that Theodore Roosevelt Island spawned the second island, initially as a tongue of sediment on Roosevelt Island’s downstream point. The sedimentary tongue was formalized into a more constructed island, today’s Lady Bird Johnson Park, which included the site of the LBJ Memorial. This finding inspired an investigation into the buildup of sediments in the Potomac River and the creation of a whole new riverfront for Washington, including the sites of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. My investigation then moved farther upriver to include the history of deforestation and erosion in the upper watershed that caused the sedimentation in the capital, and the subsequent reforestation through the creation of the George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park. This new chapter, then, situates these presidential memorials and the creation of the National Mall within the entire watershed and the creation of nationally consecrated forestlands. This research, along with conversations after my research report, led to a clearer title for my intended book: A Capital River: Cultivating Nature and Nation along the Banks of the Potomac.