Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Activists Battle for Civil War Sites $90 Million Federal Outlay Requested to Spare Battlefields from Developers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Activists Battle for Civil War Sites $90 Million Federal Outlay Requested to Spare Battlefields from Developers

Article excerpt

MORE than 230 Civil War battlefields in the United States are intact enough to be saved through the purchase and preservation of thousands of acres of land - land that could otherwise fall prey to the developer's bulldozer.

The questions are: Will an already-pinched federal government find a way to devote $90 million to this task? Are private contributors ready to chip in enough to take up any slack left by the government? Has Civil War preservation gone far enough without any additional expenditures?

The members of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission would reply with two hopeful "yeses" and one definite "no." After more than two years of field work, the commission, set up by Congress in 1990, recently released a report emphasizing that a third of the 384 battlefield sites it surveyed were already lost to development. Sites are vanishing

The report cautioned that unless preservation efforts are vigorously pushed ahead in the next 10 years, another third will vanish beneath housing tracts and malls.

The commission wants Congress to appropriate $90 million over the next seven years, most of which would go toward helping state and local governments protect historic battlefields. Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas, a major congressional backer of the project, has agreed to introduce a bill authorizing this money, but its passage is hardly a sure thing.

"We're hopeful, but it won't be easy," says Howard Coffin, a commission member from Vermont who is about to publish a book on his state's involvement in the Civil War. He sees a revival of interest in that epochal conflict, generated largely by the Ken Burns 1990 TV documentary on PBS. At the local level, Mr. Coffin says, commission members found that "every battlefield had its friends."

Another commission member, historian William Cooper of Louisiana State University, notes that three things struck him as he visited sites around the country: (1) the enthusiasm for preservation among local people, (2) the professionalism of those (such as state park rangers) already working to preserve historical sites and interpret them for the public, and (3) the amount of historical landscape that still exists in relatively unspoiled condition.

The commission devised a way of prioritizing the sites by taking into account the historical importance of a battlefield (the war included 10,500 battles and skirmishes and cost 620,000 lives), how much of each area is salvageable, and the degree of threat from development.

While the panel's work has strong backers in Washington and around the country, it also has outspoken critics. "Since the commission is made up of Civil War enthusiasts, it's no surprise their report should be out on one extreme," says Myron Ebell, an official with the National Inholders Association, a group that represents the interests of people who own land in or near national parks and other public reserves. …

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