I left the following in the comments of Kevin Levin's blog Civil War Memory, in response to a discussion about the Wal-Mart / Wilderness controversy:
Historic landscapes are increasingly rare in the intensively developed Eastern corridor of the United States. Just as habitat fragmentation reduces biodiversity, battlefield fragmentation eliminates some of its potential to inform and affect visitors and community identity. Rarely can land protection efforts realize the full conservation potential of a significant landscape, either as habitat or for its historic value. Where such opportunities still exist, it may well be a top conservation priority to invest all the time, treasure and creativity at society’s disposal to ensure that these landscapes maintain their full integrity.
How many American battlefields still have this potential? Antietam? Gettysburg? Saratoga? Not many more. And sadly, not the Wilderness.
Many, many other battle sites have not been isolated in time, where historic viewsheds can be maintained and the surrounding community becomes identified, for better or worse, by a signature event that occurred there long before living memory. If you want to interpret the site of Bunker Hill, you must contend with a obelisk in the midst of the Charlestown that rose from the ashes and a community whose residents have other sources of self and community identity. For some of us today, this is a regrettable loss,but for the generations who came after the Revolution, the monument was a fitting memorial and the idea that valuable real estate would be locked up in the interest of preservation would have made little sense.
There are many different values at play in situations like this. One thing I have learned in my years in the land protection business is that community support is vital if you want to conserve significant amounts of land, and there is no better way to derail a well-intentioned preservation effort then to let it become characterized as an imposition by outsiders – or worse, by Government – that values a rare species over the needs of local people, public land over private property, or the memory of something that happened long ago over the perceived needs of those who live there today. It may be a false dichotomy, but it can be lethal for conservation.
Places like the Wilderness are without a doubt under intense development pressure. It goes against our instincts to accept the loss of another irreplaceable acre of land with historic significance. Yet those terms of victory will ensure a lost cause.
On the other hand, there are many examples across this country, even in places typically thought of as intensely conservative and staunchly in favor of private property rights, where it is a condition of development permitting that lost wetlands and habitat be mitigated by the restoration or conservation of an equivalent amount at another location. What if Wal-Mart, as a condition of the permitting it received, had purchased for preservation another area of the Battlefield, perhaps with even greater significance? This would not have addressed all the impacts of development – traffic, for instance – but it could have been a creative solution and provided an outcome other than the zero sum game.
It would only be possible if those granting the permits, those working for preservation, those concerned about economic development, and the developers themselves were willing to work toward such an outcome. Sometimes, giving an inch is an unacceptable concession. Far more frequently, it can result in a negotiated compromise that provides benefits for more than just one side. This is a hard lesson, but one we need to grapple with before the next crisis that threatens the special places we value.