Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Battlefield Protections in Jeopardy?

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O. James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust.

Will Congress reduce funding for the engine powering battlefield preservation even as commemoration of the American Civil War’s sesquicentennial shifts into high gear?

That’s one question that naturally springs to mind while sifting through Thursday’s testimony by O. James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust, before the House Committee on Appropriations’ interior subcommittee.

The background, of course, is that budget-cutting remains a priority for Congress in this presidential election year.

But does it make fiscal sense to whack a program that multiplies small federal investments in an irreplaceable resource, and that doesn’t rely on tax dollars?

That’s another reasonable question when it comes to the federal Civil War Battlefield Preservation Program. The program is funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and administered by the American Battlefield Protection Program, an arm of the National Park Service.

Lighthizer, a former Maryland county executive and state transportation secretary who has described himself as “a recovering politician,” is too savvy to go there–especially while testifying before appropriators.

His remarks during a jam-packed hearing by the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies were respectful, deliberate and thorough.

It was clear, though, that Lighthizer and the 55,000-member trust believe this program’s forward momentum must be maintained, not diminished. (The Civil War Battlefield Preservation Program is also being considered for reauthorization by the House Natural Resources; federal money must be authorized AND appropriated by Congress, and different panels oversee the dual processes.)

Lighthizer asked members of the subcommittee to fund the effort at its congressionally authorized sum of $10 million. The program leverages oil-revenue dollars from LWCF with matching contributions from state governments and private groups such as the trust and the Fredericksburg-based Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.  Often, those matches are more than 1-to-1, meaning that Congress gets a lot of bang for its bucks.

But with Washington in campaign mode, will that be overlooked?

“We recognize that these are difficult economic times and appreciate the constraints on this Subcommittee as you work to draft an appropriation bill that meets the needs of the agencies and programs under your jurisdiction,” Lighthizer testified. “However, we believe that now, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conflict that shaped our nation, is the opportune time to provide robust funding for the Civil War Battlefield Preservation Program.”

High-priority acres that make the past real to people “will serve as lasting, tangible legacies for the sesquicentennial,” he said.

And before anyone knows it, funding the program won’t be necessary, Lighthizer said.

“We estimate that in the next 10 years, the remaining Civil War battlefield lands will be either paved over or protected,” he told the panel. “That is why we must act now in order to preserve as much key battlefield land as possible before time runs out.”

If such sites aren’t saved, “our shared history will fade into distant memory,” Lighthizer said.

For those concerned about property rights, the Civil War Battlefield Preservation Program has no eminent-domain authority, he noted. Land can be bought only from willing sellers at fair market value.

Preserved battlefields lure visitors from afar, driving local economies and bringing in tourism dollars that are vital to states and communities, Lighthizer said.

“With the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War underway, now is the opportune time to reaffirm our national commitment to the protection of these hallowed grounds,” he said. “Throughout the sesquicentennial, millions are expected to learn about our nation’s unique history by visiting Civil War sites around the country. “This anniversary provides the perfect opportunity to promote preservation of Civil War battlefields.”

The Civil War Battlefield Preservation Program’s roots date to 1990, when Congress created the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission. The blue-ribbon panel identified the 384 most historically important Civil War battlegrounds, and prioritized the threats facing them.

Lawmakers’ first $8 million appropriation encouraged state and private investment, generating $24 million for land acquisition, Lighthizer recalled. Inspired by the program, the Virginia and Mississippi legislatures ponied up $3.4 million and $2.8 million, apiece, to meet the federal match. The Civil War Trust contributed $4 million in private-sector funds.

The non-federal funds catalyzed by the program gave “a new lease on life” to at-risk Virginia battlefields at Brandy Station (in Culpeper County) and Manassas (in Prince William County), the trust chief noted.

Such partnerships between state and local governments and the private sector, which target land outside national-park boundaries, have preserved more than 17,500 acres of the most important and threatened Civil War battlefields in 14 states since Congress first funded the effort in fiscal 1999, Lighthizer said.

Money most recently provided by Congress saved battlefield sites at Bentonville, N.C.; Franklin, Tenn.; Gettysburg, Pa.; New Market Heights near Richmond; South Mountain near Sharpsburg, Md.; and Perryville, Ky., among others.

“Preserved battlefields not only honor the memory of our Civil War ancestors, but all of our nation’s brave men and women in uniform,” Lighthizer concluded. “Further, preserved battlefields serve as outdoor classrooms to teach new generations of Americans about the significance of the Civil War and remind them that the freedoms we enjoy today came at a terrific price.”