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Could famed national parks be developed from within?

April 9, 2008 12:15 am

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Buying key privately owned land in the Wilderness battlefield is a priority for the National Park Service.

By RUSTY DENNEN

Private land within the boundaries of some of the nation's most beloved national parks is under growing pressure to be developed or sold.

And, according to a new report by an independent parks watchdog group, other sites--including Fredericksburg-area Civil War battlefields--are looking for funds to acquire important acreage as federal budget cuts have dried up available money.

In its "America's Heritage for Sale" report released yesterday, the National Parks Conservation Association says of the 391 sites in the National Park System, a significant and growing number face some development threat to wildlife habitat or the preservation of cultural areas.

"Some of these privately owned parcels were placed on the market by willing sellers and authorized for purchase decades ago," the report says. "The park service, however, has lacked funding to close the deals As time races on and developers exert stronger pressure on owners to sell, the likelihood of inconsistent commercial or residential development within park boundaries increases."

Congress set the park boundaries based on the historic or scenic nature of the land. Many people are surprised to learn that private land lies within many parks.

UNWANTED ATTRACTION

For example, a hotel, conference center and museum are planned on private land within Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania. Valley Forge was Gen. George Washington's winter encampment in 1777-78.

"The best example is Zion National Park [in Utah], where a couple from California purchased 80 acres in the center of one of America's most majestic parks and began constructing a conference and retreat center," said Ron Tipton, NPCA's senior vice president for programs.

Of interest here, he added, "Mid-Atlantic region parks carved out of forest and farmland" decades ago, "are now in the suburbs of Eastern America."

There are about 2,000 acres of privately held land within Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park boundary, Russ Smith, the superintendent, said yesterday. The 8,500-acre park includes key parts of Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Court House battlefields.

"We are concerned if the land is about to be developed," Smith said. "We have to look at the land in terms of how vulnerable it is to development and that's how we set our priorities."

IMPORTANT LAND

There are several parcels along the north side of State Route 20 in Wilderness battlefield that were at risk of commercial development, Smith said. Acquisition of more of that land in Orange County would allow visitors to walk from Union to Confederate lines. Part of the battlefield is broken up by private ownership.

Another threatened site is the Jackson Flank area in Chancellorsville, where Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson led 26,000 troops on a 12-mile march to attack the Union's flank.

The NPCA report says that the military park hopes to acquire about 230 acres in Wilderness and Chancellorsville at an estimated cost of $5.5 million.

Smith said the acreage and the dollar amount, "sound a little low. We're in the process of updating them now."

The military park has no money available for land acquisition.

LOW PRIORITY

"Congress has to appropriate the funds and has not made land acquisition a high priority," Smith said. The most recent purchase of acreage in Orange, "cleared us out, and there's no expectation of getting $5 million. We're not optimistic at all."

While federal money is scarce, private nonprofits have spent millions preserving land inside and nearby the military park.

The Civil War Preservation Trust and the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, for example, have bought up hundreds of acres of significant land in recent years in Spotsylvania and Orange.

The NPCA estimates that about 1.8 million acres of priority land in national parks could be sold or developed. This comes at a time when acquisition appropriations dropped from $130 million in 2002, to $44 million this year.

It is asking Congress to appropriate $150 million each year between now and the National Parks' 2016 centennial, to purchase the priority land.

The money would come out of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which receives $900 million annually, primarily from oil and gas leases.

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For the full report, visit: npca.org/landforsale/

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com




Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park: 230 acres in Wilderness and Chancellorsville, estimated cost, $5.5 million. Richmond National Battlefield Park: 356 acres, $2 million. Prince William Forest Park: 180 acres, $7 million. Manassas National Battlefield Park: 10 acres, $1 million. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park: 5 acres, $350,000.

--National Parks Conservation Association




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