Preserving our Battlefields: “History” and “Nature” are not mutually exclusive

In a recent post, James Broomall spoke of a panel discussion he’ll be moderating at the upcoming conference at Gettysburg College, “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th.” Jim will be focusing on the future of battlefield preservation and some of the management issues that will raise.

Gregg K, who works as a natural resource manager, posted a reply that’s worthy of particular consideration, so I wanted to repost it as a springboard for a little discussion. For those who missed it, Gregg wrote:

Hi, Chris. Something to think about, and bring up in your discussion; and, since you are sensitive to natural resources, you would be able to understand my point of view, is the restoration of battlefield landscapes on a broad scale. I think the reconstruction of the Sunken Road is an awesome example of a great idea put into practice. However, what concerns me is the wholesale removal of forested areas, like what is/was being done at Gettysburg. This has a huge impact on wildlife, plants and wetlands – and, thinking specifically at Gettysburg, removing the visual buffers right up to people’s suburban backyards – that one was a huge mistake in my mind. I understand the importance of recreating a visual battlefield, but when huge swaths of forest are removed – chunks of forest that have been there for several decades, and have become high-value wildlife habitat in those intervening years – that is a problem. The NPS is supposed to preserve and protect – not slash and burn. If the appearance of an opening can be recreated in a considered manner with a scalpel vs. a broad-headed axe the agency would be on a road to compromise. Also, the idea of removing forested wetlands – again, a high value ecotype – for an open field wetland, one not near as valuable for wildlife, is a travesty. And, when I refer to the impacts on wildlife – I do think of charismatic megafauna like deer, but, almost more importantly, the small, seemingly insignificant wildlife, like small mammals, amphibians and reptiles, and small herbaceous plants. Forest clearing and forested wetland clearing has a HUGE impact on these small critters, that are suffering major impacts throughout their range. Deer can move around to different areas, but these small critters usually just get killed, they are too small to escape. Birds too can be impacted – they can fly away, but they have nesting needs – some need large areas of intact forest to successfully nest – these large tracts are getting harder and harder to find. Just something to ponder, and possibly bring up during the panel discussion.

Gregg brings up a great point. So frequently, we consider a space’s primary purpose and forget its ancillary functions. Within the NPS, I hear the unfortunate distinction between “nature park” and “history park” as though they’re mutually exclusive. I’ve heard historians deride “tree huggers” for being concerned about the ecological impact of historical preservation.

The irony is that naturalists and historians are pretty much on the same page when it comes to the need for preservation. The divide comes when discussions turn to management. Once a space is protected, how should it be maintained? Agendas begin to differ.

Yet how many of us visit these scared spaces to have our souls nourished by the ability to simply stand on those fields and allow ourselves to be taken away for a few moments? Whether we realize it or not, the natural integrity of the battlefields is integral to our own experiences.

Regardless of our intent for preserving a space, though, nature has its own agenda that may have nothing to do with ours. Wildlife, for instance, has no concept whatsover that a particular space is “a park”– they utilize the space because it’s available. In areas where viable habitat is otherwise vanishing, that makes park space all the more crucial. Consider the suburban sprawl that has all but swallowed places like Manassas and Petersburg, for example.

I think, particularly, of the swath of land along Lee Drive in Fredericksburg, which the Park Service has left forested because the trees block out the subdivisions and neighborhoods that crowd in on both sides. It makes for a much more pleasant experience for park visitors to have all that clutter blocked out by the trees–but it also becomes a vital greenspace for fauna that has otherwise lost thousands of acres of habitat.

At the far end of the battlefield, the view from Prospect Hill overlooks a partially forest plain. Once upon a time, the entire plain was open. The Park Service has kept trees along the southernmost horizon to block out an old GM manufacturing plant. Today’s bucolic view isn’t historically accurate, but it does serve an important purpose. It seems, based on Gregg’s comments (and from what I’ve seen myself), Gettysburg has opted for historical accuracy over aesthetics. The historical purist in me has delighted at some of the land clearing that park has done, but the visitor in me has simultaneously felt diminished. The naturalist in me feels heartbroken.

Just because we’ve established a park to preserve a piece of our history, that preserved space serves other, sometimes larger, functions that have nothing to do with the history. (Tourism would be another example.) We have a responsibility to consider those wider purposes.

How to balance these things does, indeed, pose a significant challenge for the NPS. Gregg’s scalpel-over-broadheaded axe approach deserves serious, serious consideration–which will be all the more challenging in this age of government sequestration. However, if it can get past the challenge of short-term thinking, a government agency looking to work smarter with fewer resources would do well to consider the wisdom and efficiency of Gregg’s suggestion.

2 Responses to Preserving our Battlefields: “History” and “Nature” are not mutually exclusive

  1. It being physically impossible to fully satisfy both schools of thought, why not have a policy of allowing historically accurate landscaping only in those areas where there are no resulting exposed housing areas, or automobile plants. Admittedly, these would be few; but I submit Shiloh is a notable exception. The irregular shape of Fraley’s field, for example, is indicative of the non-mechanized farming techniques of the nineteenth century South. The open field facing the Hornet’s Nest should always remain cleared of forest (Ruggles fired the cannons into the forested position held by Prentiss, while the batteries themselves were exposed.) Can you imagine visiting a military park wherein dozens of cannon are arrayed, with their muzzles pointed (point-blank) into large trees?

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