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Re-Creating Battlefields Causes New Skirmishes

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Battlefield historians say it will bring a clearer understanding and vision of the Battle of Second Manassas. Environmentalists say it will reduce an already diminished amount of hickory-oak forest in Northern Virginia and further degrade the surrounding environment.

Nevertheless, the National Parks Service plans to cut down approximately 140 acres of timber in the western end of the Manassas National Battlefield Park beginning this month.

"The National Park Service cutting trees is not a common thing," said Manassas Battlefield Superintendent Robert K. Sutton.

However, re-creating historic battlefields is more in vogue since Gettysburg National Military Park won its battle with environmentalists to clear nearly 600 acres of its battlefield, while replanting about 120 acres and a few orchards, said John A. Latschar, the Gettysburg park's superintendent.

During the early years of battlefield protection, Civil War veterans were the caretakers, Latschar said. "When they heard the phrase, 'preserve the lines of battle' . . . obviously, that meant you had to preserve the fields of observation and fire," he said.

Work to re-create those fields will bring visitors "a much more accurate, much more emotional and, we hope, more meaningful" experience, Latschar said.

On the afternoon of Aug. 28, 1862, Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson ordered his troops to attack a Union column led by Gen. John Pope along Warrenton Turnpike, now Route 29. The battle, thought to be fought at a 50- to 80- yard distance, was waged on the open fields of Brawner Farm, north of Route 29.

Two days later, the fight returned to the area of Deep Cut, just east of Brawner Farm on Featherbed Lane. Union troops were working their way up a hill, but Jackson's army and artillery fired down on them. Visitors finding a heavily wooded hill might find it hard to envision the six cannons that were pointed at the Union troops, Sutton said.

Both areas will have the most dramatic deforestation. A 35-acre site on Matthews Hill, off Sudley Road, will be cut and a 25-acre site a few yards away will be replanted, said Bryan Gorsira, program manager for natural resources at Manassas Battlefield Park.

Several compromises were made for the cut, Gorsira said. There were three hickory-oak forests, totaling 13.2 acres, that officials from the Virginia Natural Heritage Program within the Department of Conservation and Recreation requested be left alone. The park plans left out less than five acres, Gorsira said.

"They wanted that part excluded, but that was right in the middle of the line of sight, and that would defeat the purpose" of the project, he said.

The land was cattle pasture during the war, but bringing cattle back would require a kind of park maintenance that officials are not prepared to undertake, Sutton said.

Otherwise, the best forest management practices are being used, Gorsira said. Buffers along streams and roads will be maintained, with trees allowed to grow within 100 feet. Planting native grasses with deep rooting systems will replace the treeless area and will be cut for hay by local farmers, he said.

Many large old-growth trees will be spared, giving the field a savannah landscape, which is rare in Northern Virginia, Sutton said.

But others said that the forest that is already there is rare.

The hickory-oak forest is "globally rare" and found in six counties in Virginia and Maryland, said Kim Hosen, executive director of Prince William Conservation Alliance. "We appreciate the need to protect the view-shed, but they are not re-creating the conditions at the time of the Civil War. And this involves cutting down a very rare forest that has significant value to the community in 2007," Hosen said.

There is a reason why this land was preserved as a park, Sutton said. "The reason this park exists is because of the Civil War," he said.

The timber also will be removed using low-impact equipment, and the stumps will be left to rot so as not to disturb possible artifacts in the ground, said Scott Riegel, co-owner of West Virginia-based Clear Creek Forestry, which agreed to cut the forest for the cost of the timber. Riegel, who has been working with Sutton over three years to plan the project, estimates it could cost as much as $200,000 and last about three months with perfect weather.

"We will lay down saplings, limbs and even some chips" to minimize disturbing the soil, he said.

Sutton said the plans to return the battlefields to their historic vistas were included in the park's long-term plan in 1983. The plans also include clearing 40 acres behind the park's headquarters on the hill where Gen. Robert E. Lee's headquarters had a perfect view of the surroundings but where many trees have since grown.

Although Civil War reenactments are not allowed on federal land, restoring the landscapes is of great interest to such groups.

"It has gotten more professional as time has gone on," said Linden A. "Butch" Fravel, vice president of Cedar Creek Battlefield in Warrenton, where reenactments of the Battle of First Manassas were held last year. "[The reenactors] have come a long way and continue to improve their knowledge of what they are doing and their interpretation of it," Fravel said. Cedar Creek Battlefield pays its mortgage through reenactments, Fravel said, adding that he thinks it's a great way to subsidize national parks.

"A lot of those [reenactors] are into authenticity," he said.

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