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Civil War buffs couldn't see history for the trees

National parks clear trees from original battlefield 'sight lines,' delighting (and appalling) students of history.

By Randy DotingaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2008

Revealed: At the Battle of Gettysburg site, 576 acres of trees once hid the story of July 3, 1863.

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GETTYSBURG, PA.

Even though he spends his time guiding tourists through the nooks and crannies of a Civil War-era house, retired librarian Harry Conay believes that nature can trump history.

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He's watched in horror as the National Park Service has tried to make the Gettysburg National Military Park look more like it did on three July days in 1863. Officials are nearly a third of the way through cutting down 576 acres of trees that didn't exist back then.

Another 275 acres will be replanted with trees and orchards that disappeared over the past 15 decades. But it's not enough to please Mr. Conay, who says the battlefield's history is partly told through the healing of the earth. After all, the trees managed to thrive on land ravaged by a deadly struggle between two immense armies.

"During those 140 years, this has become something more than a battlefield lesson," Conay says from behind the gift-shop counter at the historic house where he serves as a guide.

But the trees continue to fall, despite a flurry of protests amid preparations for this month's opening of a $103 million visitors center and museum. And as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, at least one other battlefield is poised to restore history by chopping down countless trees.

To supporters, including park officials and amateur historians, the Gettysburg project makes perfect sense because it allows visitors to better understand the past. The enormous challenges facing generals and soldiers, they say, will finally be clear.

"It's not just about trying to create a postcard picture to make something look like it did 150 years ago," says Don Barger, a regional director with the National Parks Service, which runs the military park. "It's about protecting the elements necessary to tell the story."

New views on the challenge of the battle

The park, in southern Pennsylvania, draws about 2 million visitors each year to marvel at a crucial and bloody battle. The South, which had come close to forcing the North to the bargaining table, lost the battle and never recovered.

Dozens of tour buses traverse the 6,000-acre military park each day, bringing visitors to admire hundreds of statues and monuments and view battle landmarks such as Little Round Top and the Peach Orchard.

As part of the restoration project, park officials digitized 19th-century maps and conducted "terrain analysis" – a military strategy taught at West Point – to figure out which features of the landscape affected the battle. Then the officials made choices about adding or removing everything from trees and fences to roads and orchards.

The "rehabilitation" project – about halfway completed – will eliminate 576 acres of trees while adding 115 acres of trees and 160 acres of orchards. Thirty-nine miles of "historic" fencing will be erected, too. In addition, power poles have been removed along with a car dealership and a motel.

Among other things, the park service has cut down a stand of trees at Devil's Den, uncovering more of the rocky patch where Civil War photographers captured stunning images of the carnage.

At historic sites, looking forward while looking back

Several U.S. historic sites are being given new looks. A few notable examples:

•The Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania unveiled a $103 million museum and visitors center in a "soft opening" earlier this month. A grand opening will be held in September, when visitors will be able to see the famous cyclorama painting of the pivotal battle, restored to the way it looked in 1884.

•As part of a $110 million restoration project, a new visitors center and museum opened at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens in 2006. Visitors to the Virginia estates can watch documentary films, wander through galleries, and look at three life-sized models of America's first president, each created with the assistance of a forensic anthropologist.

•Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants first encountered New York City and America, opened a newly restored ferry building on its south side to visitors last year and is raising money to restore more buildings.

•At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia, construction has begun on a $55 million visitors center and museum that will include hands-on activities for children.

•A $14 million visitors center opened in 2005 at Fort Necessity, the Pennsylvania site of the first battle of the French and Indian War. It draws about 90,000 visitors a year.

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