Trees Lose on Manassas Battlefield

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

There is Jackson, sitting astride his mount, Little Sorrel, surveying vistas of rolling fields, towering signs, high-voltage power lines and trees.

The iconic statue of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson commemorates the place where he inspired Confederate troops to victory. Federal and Prince William County officials want to preserve views of Manassas National Battlefield Park. There's not much they can do about the signs and power lines. But the trees? They can go.

More than 140 acres of rare oak trees on the Civil War site were getting in the way of historic vistas of the last Union assault at the second battle of Manassas. So the National Park Service cut them down.

Preserving Prince William's physical battlegrounds is no longer enough. Historians want to re-create historic battlefields so visitors can see the land the same way that those who fought in the Civil War would have seen it.

Staff members from the park and the county's planning department are studying how to protect views on the battlefield. The study will attempt to guide future development outside park grounds and potentially limit road construction and the heights of office parks, apartment buildings and billboards.

"It's crucial to the public understanding of what happened. It helps give the public a sense of place," said Ray Brown, the park's cultural resource manager. "That's difficult to do when your surrounding context is changing so rapidly."

But some county officials and historians question whether it's worth sacrificing progress -- and possibly more trees -- to re-create history.

"The 'view shed' concept is extending itself beyond the battlefield. That's worrisome," Manassas City Council member Jonathan Way said. "The Park Service is getting into land-use and development beyond its geographic responsibility."

Prince William officials are in the process of documenting view sheds -- the area an individual can see from a given point -- with the help of a $60,000 grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program.

The 5,100-acre park sits at routes 29 and 234. Its trails and fields are popular among history buffs, nature lovers, wildflower enthusiasts, birders and equestrians. And although that sort of activity is expected in a park setting, another activity, perhaps more closely associated with the battlefield, is strictly out of bounds.

Civil War reenactments are not allowed on federal land. That's left some critics questioning the effort to restore Manassas Battlefield to its original landscape, when it was actively cultivated farmland.

With 58 of the 384 Civil War sites under Park Service jurisdiction, Manassas Battlefield serves as a proving ground for historic sites threatened by development, Joan M. Zenzen says in "Battling for Manassas," a book about the longstanding preservation struggle at the park.

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