Battlefields' new enemy: strip malls

The government is trying to save historic sites from sprawl.

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.

"The longer that we delay acquisition of land, the more costly it becomes to stave off problems," says Bill Mitchell, who oversees the Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program.

Already, the Civil War Preservation Trust has identified hundreds of battlefields that are currently imperiled.

But critics have fought greater federal protection of some of these sites, charging that the protection is merely a guise to bring more private land under public ownership. Mr. Moe says the primary objective is to purchase development rights, not to acquire the deed to a piece of property.

"What we are promoting with battlefield protection is one of the best examples of public and private partnerships," Moe says.

Not just Civil War sites

Increasingly, preservation efforts are focusing not just on Civil War sites, which have a vocal group of defenders, but also on battlefields connected to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Indian wars in the West.

One such site is Florida's Okeechobee battlefield, where Zachary Taylor's troops in 1837 clashed with the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. "The Seminole Wars deserve their rightful play in history," says Moe.

While battlefield protection is one of the few issues in Congress that has received bipartisan support, lawmakers in recent years have funded less than half of what the Park Service requested. Moreover, preservation is made more difficult by the diverse circumstances surrounding each site.

Like Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, the top of Last Stand Hill in Montana provides a commanding view of the topography that rises from the battlefield.

The treeless prairie climbing from the tranquil banks of the Bighorn River is dotted with white tombstone markers placed where US soldiers fell. Today, meadowlarks dart among the stones as visitors pass one another on a winding path.

But out to the north, where two highways intersect, a cluster of shops snag tourists. Nearby, a piece of real estate is being considered for a new casino. To the south is a gasoline station at the outpost of Garryowen.

In between is a sweep of private farmland that, if it is ever sold and developed, could decimate the view, Mr. Magnum says. With farming and ranching in decline in many parts of the state, that concern is not a far-fetched possibility.

Little Bighorn challenges

The challenge here is also made more complicated by the fact that the battlefield is surrounded by the Crow Indian Reservation, a place with high unemployment and a strong desire for economic development. Hotels, casinos, and gas stations may be the nemeses of aesthetic integrity, but they are crucial services for tourism to bring cash to the community.

Similar conflicts between short-term profits and long-term preservation objectives exist at every battlefield in the country. Park officials like Mangum, though, say it's crucial to stay focused on the long-range benefits.

"Only when you are able to see the same landscape that the people who made history saw, to know its serene beauty and the unmarred geological features that shaped the battle, can you fully appreciate what happened there," he says. "When we save the battlefield, we honor their memory."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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