Battlefields' New Enemy: Strip Malls ; the Government Is Trying to Save Historic Sites from Sprawl

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It was 1876 when George Armstrong Custer and fellow members of the 7th Cavalry met their notorious demise here on Last Stand Hill overlooking Montana's Little Bighorn River.

Some 124 years later, historians trying to preserve the memory of that famous Indian rout face an enemy far more ubiquitous than the swarm of angry Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.

Today's unrelenting foe is sprawl.

"We have development creeping in like bookends upon the battlefield viewshed," says Neil Mangum, superintendent of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. "It's hard to appreciate the solemnness and mood of a place like this if there's a fast food franchise on the horizon."

Here and across the country, hallowed ground where cannon fire, bullets, and arrows once rained down is being sacked by bulldozers and clutter. To fight an advancing front of duplexes and strip malls, government officials and local activists are taking important steps to protect America's historic fields of war.

"Rural and urban sprawl is making the need to preserve battlefields more urgent than ever," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has two battlefields featured on its annual Top 11 list of endangered historic places. "Whether or not we can preserve them all in a timely fashion still is in doubt."

Signs of a new commitment to battlefield protection are apparent. A top priority of the Clinton administration's proposed Lands Legacy Initiative is purchasing land adjacent to, and inside of, Civil War battlefields. (A Republican version of the proposal is now before the Senate.)

Also, the National Park Service is seeking $22 million to safeguard such places as Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park in Tennessee, Harpers Ferry, W.V., Manassas, Va., and Vicksburg, Miss.

"There is a need to be vigilant," says George Hartzog, former Park Service director in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. "Unfortunately, there is no monetary value that gets assigned to a battlefield, but developers know the value of the ground beneath it."

Gettysburg Tower

In most cases, experts say, the clock cannot be set back to repair damage caused by the suburbanization of pastoral landscapes. Yet in a high-profile gesture at Gettysburg last week, the federal government toppled a 307-foot viewing platform situated high above the sloping field where Confederate Gen. George Pickett in 1863 led his ill-fated charge. Built during an era when Gettysburg had no zoning to prevent visual blight, the tower was often derided as an eyesore.

"Ever since the 1970s, the Gettysburg Tower has stood as a reminder of everything that could go wrong with trying to preserve a historic site," says Katie Lawhon, a spokeswoman at Gettysburg.

Indeed, the move after years of protracted debate shows the difficulties involved with keeping a historic area pristine. To destroy the tower, which was located on private land and was privately owned, the government may have to pay as much as $3 million in the form of a federal buyout.

The current momentum to save battlefields began in the late '80s, when real estate developers and later, the Walt Disney Corp., independently proposed a subdivision and historic theme park on the edge of the Manassas battlefield west of Washington.

Public outrage was so strong that it resonated all the way to Capitol Hill. Congress in 1992 asked the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission to pinpoint the battlefields most in jeopardy. …