By Rosalyn Dance and Alfonso Lopez
For The Virginian-Pilot
Apr 22, 2018
AMERICANS FIND inspiration in open space and preserved landscapes. Some may not be moved by history, but millions of people — along with plants, streams and wildlife — benefit from conservation of historic lands. As Virginians celebrate Earth Day today, that’s worth remembering.
In recent years, some of the most significant efforts to preserve open space in Virginia have been realized through saving its hallowed battlegrounds. These sites honor the tens of thousands of Americans who fought and fell there in military conflicts that forged the nation we are today. They also provide buffers against water and air pollution, help biodiversity, offer recreational opportunities, and sustain “green islands” amid sprawl and urbanization.
The commonwealth has more battlefields, both preserved and unpreserved, than any other state; they include national parks, state parks and land saved by private conservation organizations.
Yet, this land is anything but static. While you won’t find neon signs extolling its benefits for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, this acreage absorbs rain like a sponge, purifying it and nourishing the groundwater supply, while draining the excess properly, without erosion. That doesn’t happen when parking lots or buildings cover the ground.
Many a famous battle was fought along storied Virginia waterways, from Hampton Roads to the James, York and Shenandoah rivers, from the Appomattox River to the Rappahannock River. Today, ensuring that land near them remains unspoiled is vital to water quality.
In the James River watershed alone, battlefield preservation efforts have saved hundreds of acres of wetlands. In the whole bay watershed, one nonprofit group has preserved 25,600 battleground acres, including nearly 50 sites in Virginia, and 10 in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Battlefield preservation can rehabilitate landscapes, restore sites to their wartime appearance, and replant trees, grasses and shrubs — which helps visitors visualize and understand soldiers’ experiences, while reducing erosion and supporting wildlife.
Simply stated: Preserving battlefields provides Virginians with cleaner air and water, and enhances their quality of life.
These landscapes, including forests, provide habitat for animals that need room to thrive and survive, such as fox, deer, raccoon, bear, hawks, eagles and many others. Preserved battlefields are home to endangered and threatened plants and animals, and support the watersheds upon which this diversity of flora and fauna depends.
When a battlefield parcel is saved as open space, its conservation complements its preservation. The land doesn’t go on the shelf. It is well managed, with programs to eradicate invasive species and promote native species. At Petersburg National Battlefield, for example, open battlefield areas that are allowed to grow wild provide a home for game birds and ground-nesting birds. Richmond National Battlefield Park maintains a seeding and planting program for native grasses such as little bluestem and broom sedge.
Many of the battles waged on American soil took place on farmland, and battlefield land — both publicly and privately owned — often continues to be used for agricultural purposes, a resource for new and eager generations of farmers.
Along Route 3 west of Fredericksburg, preservationists saved Chancellorsville Battlefield sites that seemed destined for commercial and residential development. Had that happened, more traffic would have congested local roads and worsened residents’ daily life. Instead, these battlefield tracts serve the Rappahannock watershed as they always have, and their interpretive trails provide places for people to exercise, explore and walk with friends and family. The land has become a community resource.
Out for a stroll and fresh air, some visitors might not know what happened on a particular battlefield, or why the land was saved. But they might read a marker, and start to appreciate what occurred there long ago — and how it continues to affect us.
Protecting battlefields and conserving open space go hand in hand, as demonstrated by years of bipartisan action by Virginia governors and other public officials. We have been proud to support such protections. And this Earth Day, we celebrate the many environmental benefits of the commonwealth’s commitment to the preservation of its historic battlefields.
Sen. Rosalyn Dance has represented Virginia’s 16th Senate District since 2014. She was a state delegate from 2005 to 2014, and mayor of Petersburg from 1992 to 2004. Del. Alfonso Lopez, who chairs the General Assembly’s Virginia Environment and Renewable Energy Caucus, has represented Virginia’s 49th House District since 2012.