Hallowed Parks: Saving Battlefields 150 Years after the Civil War

By Hayward, Phil | Parks & Recreation, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Hallowed Parks: Saving Battlefields 150 Years after the Civil War


Hayward, Phil, Parks & Recreation


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July 21 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of a time in American history that Jim Lighthizer hopes will never repeat itself. If he has his way, his work will go a long way in reminding Americans of the four-year horror that began with the Battle of First Manassas in the northern part of Virginia, a state that saw more fighting than any other state. As president of the Washington, D.C.-based Civil War Trust, Lighthizer leads a grim race to rescue battlefield tracts around the country from commercial and residential development. Yet, for all it has accomplished in the last 24 years, Lighthizer considers their mission a losing proposition. With some 10,000 acres of land designated as "significant to the outcome of the war" disappearing every year, Lighthizer considers their work as perpetually in "crisis mode."

"You're never going to get out of crisis mode," Lighthizer says. "All that needs to be saved, will never be saved. The universe is just too big--there are probably a couple hundred thousand acres--the essential stuff, not the nice-to-have land."

This is not to say the Trust's efforts to save Civil War battlefields haven't been successful. Since its founding as the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites in 1987 and its subsequent merger in 1991 with an organization then called the Civil War Trust, the current Civil War Trust has saved more than 30,000 acres of battlefield land in 20 states. Some of that land will remain in conservation easements, some adjoined to existing parkland, and others made as new parks. Funding for CWT acquisitions comes from a variety of sources: federal, state, and nonprofit grants, landowner donations, and Trust member donations.

When the Trust is not acquiring land and conducting educational programs, it often joins other organizations and municipalities on behalf of threatened sites. Its 2005 advocacy on part of efforts to halt proposed construction of a casino near the Gettysburg Battlefield was one of its more successful and high-profile endeavors. In that campaign, the Trust commissioned a study that successfully rebutted the developer's claims of the economic benefit of casinos while offering a wealth of statistics showing the merits of battlefield parks as economic engines. It comes down to articulating the unique characteristics of parks in general and battlefield parks in particular.

"It's not just a pretty piece of land we want to preserve--indeed if it is pretty," Lighthizer says. "It's where an important part of American history happened. It has significantly more advantages if it is pre served than an ordinary situated piece of land.

"It remembers, it teaches, and it is even more of an economic engine than an ordinary park in that people want to come there, and when they come there, they tend to leave money in the general area," Lighthizer continues. "Take a grand park, like Glacier National Park, where I have hiked many times. You have a magnificent piece of land and it's an economic engine for the area. It does teach, as far as nature goes. But unlike Gettysburg, humans didn't do great things there. Battlefield parks are, more than anything else, outdoor classrooms. They are places to go to remember and to learn."

Lighthizer praises the relationship between the Civil War Trust and the parks and recreation field, which he describes as healthy and robust. "We're in the same business, whether it's federal, state, or local," he says. "We [CWT] compliment what governments do. And we can do things governments cannot do or do them better--like move fast. We can do deals that governments can't, or are prohibited from, or just won't do."

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And not all that the Civil War Trust does is immediately popular.

"Sometimes we'll buy land and we want to restore it as it looked at the time of the battle so we can teach and so we can better remember, but mainly so we can teach. …

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