A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part two)

(part two of five)

After a 44-year career with the National Park Service, Dave Ruth, superintendent at Richmond National Battlefield, retired at the beginning of this week. Dave spent the last twenty-six years of his career at Richmond, and during that time, he saw the park more than quadruple in size.

But as he told me during yesterday’s portion of the interview, “When we’ve gotten these properties, we’ve tried to do something with them as fast as we could in order for people to understand why we’re continuing the work of preservation.” Today, Dave talks more about the important relationship between preservation and interpretation. 

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: You came up through the ranks on the history and interpretation side of things, so from a big-picture administration point of view, those things have been a key priority for you, where they might not necessarily be for some other superintendent.

DAVE RUTH: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. I started working at Fredericksburg in ’73 under Bob Krick, and I was just a seasonal ranger at that time and learned very quickly to watch and look at how things are done and why. One of the things that Bob undertook was landscape interpretation. I watched as he converted Spotsylvania from primarily a forested woodland, where you couldn’t get a good grasp of the important landmarks and how the battle evolved, to a cleared landscape of open fields. I believe that was in 1977, and I don’t recall any Civil War battlefield undergoing landscape rehabilitation before Bob’s effort. His work payed huge dividends. For the first time, a visitor could begin to understand what happened on the land.

So when I got to these battlefields, one of the first major activities at Malvern Hill we undertook in partnership with the APCWS [Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites] in the mid-nineties was to emulate what happened at Spotsylvania. We rehabilitated about 55 acres by removing the trees that blocked the Confederate avenue of attack.

CM: Richmond National Battlefield has undergone tremendous expansion since then . . . .

DR: The planning for our new general management plan [GMP] and land protection plan started in 1991, when I first got here, and it was definitely one of the greatest challenges of my career. It was not an effort that was well received by local government or by many local citizens. It was at the height of the property rights movement. The “C-word,” as we called it, “condemnation” was a real problem in our legislation, as many folks thought we were just going to steal their land whether or not they wished to dispose of it. There was even an attempt to pass a state law blocking any expansion of our park and Shenandoah National Park, as well. The effort was unsuccessful, but this was an example of the kind of pressure placed on our national delegation to prevent us from expanding or just establishing a real boundary through a land protection plan. As a result of this opposition, we re-thought both our purpose and strategy and came up with two things that turned the tide and have been used in several park legislations since.

The first was to remove condemnation from the proposed language of our plan, and second, we stated that we would work with willing sellers only. These changes did not dissuade those who were staunch property-rights advocates, but it did bring county government around to supporting what we were trying to do.

At the time we began work on updating our GMP, the park owned a mere 754 acres. Our first task was to identify what we thought were both the critical and available lands, so we converted the superintendent’s office into a sort of “war room” and hung maps of all the battlefields on the walls. Bobby Krick, Mike Andrus, Ed Sanders, and I would sit in here for untold hours and debate about where the acquisition lines should be drawn around the battlefields. Then we had to determine which specific parcels were within the lines. That became the basis for our land protection program and ultimately informed the park’s new legislation that was approved in the year 2000. That legislation allowed us to expand the park to just over 7300 acres.

Because of the major opposition to our park expansion at the time, we know we were extremely conservative in identifying all the historical significant lands. For example, there were no tracts involved in any of the Deep Bottom fighting included in the plan. Fortunately with the support of our local government, we were able to secure a minor boundary adjustment a couple of years ago to take in some properties that were left out.

The first successful attempt at any major acquisition at Richmond since the 1930’s was the effort spearheaded by Will Greene and the APCWS at Malvern Hill in 1996. The organization negotiated a huge deal that was very agreeable with the landowner. With that successful effort, the tide began to turn.

And then the recession hit. Land values not only slowed, but they sometimes decreased, so people came to realize that they may not see the value of their property escalating by a factor of 10, 20, 50, whatever—that perhaps land values may even decrease. It was a great opportunity for the reinvigorated Civil War Trust. Under Jim Lighthizer’s direction the organization began an aggressive program of contacting land owners to begin the conversations about the possibilities of acquisition. The Trust could make inroads with landowners where the government often failed, and they could make the deal happen quickly and efficiently.

So, the boundary that started at 754 acres now has expanded to just under 4,000. With the projects that are in place, even up to this very morning, we will hopefully exceed beyond 4,000 acres that the National Park Service will own and manage. And there are other properties outside our boundary that are owned by CWT and other preservation organizations.

CM: Do you know about how much that is?

DR: There are 500 acres owned by 501(c)(3) organizations and 1,450 by state and local governments. So that’s nearly 2,000 acres that are historically significant properties above the 3,700 that we currently own in fee—almost 6,000 acres owned right around Richmond. Again, when we began this campaign, the total was 754 acres.

CM: Considering what I would assume is a lot development pressure as Richmond continues to expand, property has to be a pretty high commodity around here, being the state capital and all.

DR: The fortunate thing about the development process is that Richmond largely moved northwest and west. As a result of that, a lot of the lands, particularly associated with the Seven Days and the Overland Campaign have not been subjected to development. Richmond’s western growth and the slowing of housing developments have bought us time.

It doesn’t mean that we’re not constantly on the lookout! Each month I review every development proposal for each county, so we are able to express our concerns before they even get to the planning commission. When there is a proposed impact on battlefields or any Civil War resource such as earthworks, we try to be a voice for conservation. We’ve had many successes, but put simply, we just can’t save everything in an area where nearly every inch of ground was marched on, camped on, or fought on. But we really do try our best to influence decisions made by the counties and often seek mitigation strategies that are often compromises.

But like I said, things are starting to gear up as the economy is turning around. We’ve found that the area southeast of Richmond has the potential to really become a place where our local government want to protect the view sheds, protect the property, protect any kind of landscape impacts, and see it as a potential economic draw for our community.

At Malvern Hill, for example—it looks like we’re closing on property, right now, in partnership with Henrico County. Our collaboration will hopefully result in the preservation of a 1,000-acre farm that will be subdivided, with Henrico County owning the least historically significant portion and the NPS owning the 425 acres that were closely associated with the battle. I never could have imagined this type of collaboration in 1993, but it does indicate the level of trust that has been fostered through the years.


Preservation and interpretation are just the first two steps of a three-step process, Dave says. When our interview continues tomorrow, he’ll explain the crucial third step.


Please leave a comment and join the discussion!