America’s Unfinished Work: Funding Battlefield Preservation

By Christine Luthy posted 06-12-2017 11:23


Historic battlefields, such as Antietam and Fort McHenry in Maryland and Little Bighorn in Montana, are iconic and evocative sites that encourage us to reflect on defining and oftentimes difficult events in our nation’s history. America’s very ideals and values were contested, shaped, affirmed, and reaffirmed at these places. In the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln said: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. These historic sites illuminate our history and create space in which to discuss issues that have long been significant to us and remain relevant today.

Antietam National Battlefield Park. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Many of America’s historic battlefields are protected by the National Park Service (NPS), which manages 25 battlefields and military parks. Unfortunately, due to decades of underfunding by Congress, the NPS is faced with a backlog of more than $11 billion in deferred maintenance. Of that number, $472.5 million is identified for military assets. 

In conjunction with our partners at Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is engaged in the nationwide Restore America’s Parks campaign to tackle the deferred maintenance issue that carries with it the risk of permanent damage or loss of historic and cultural assets. In one of a series of letters to Congress, we focused on American battlefields, writing to leaders on the House and Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittees. More than 100 individuals and organizations spanning 29 states and the District of Columbia signed on to the letter, urging Congress to protect these important sites by guaranteeing a reliable and dedicated funding source for their repair needs. The wide variety of preservation and cultural resource organizations that joined the Trust—which includes the Civil War Trust, the American Association for State and Local History, Friends of Sitka National Historical Park, and the Indianapolis Civil War Round Table—demonstrates a strong commitment to honoring the importance of battlefields to our collective American story. 

Funding Our Nation’s Battlefields

Congress provided $2.9 billion for the NPS in FY17, an $81 million boost over the previous fiscal year. Successful advocacy led to significant increases to three key accounts for maintaining our parks and battlefields: the Repair and Rehabilitation, Cyclic Maintenance, and Line-Item Construction accounts increased by $54 million, or 17 percent. In contrast, the Trump administration’s FY18 budget request calls for steep reductions, funding the NPS at $2.6 billion, a more than $300 million cut from FY17 levels. The proposal recommends an increase to Line-Item Construction, but diminishes funding for Repair and Rehabilitation and Cyclic Maintenance. Ultimately, the budget would collectively decrease funding for the three accounts by a total of $34 million.

National Trust staff at the Pennsylvania State Memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park. | Credit: Christine Luthy, National Trust for Historic Preservation

In April President Trump donated $78,333—his first quarter salary—to the NPS to invest in battlefields. While this gesture suggests that the president does value battlefields, his proposed budget reduces key programs that are necessary to ensure their protection. Cuts proposed to the NPS budget would trim support for the American Battlefield Protection Program Assistance Grants by $696,000 and the American Battlefield Protection Program Acquisition Grants by $1.5 million. Cutting assistance grants would decrease federal funding and the amount of matching support available for preservation and education projects. The highest-priority projects would be awarded fewer and lower-dollar grants. Similarly, the proposed budget for land acquisition grants would limit the capacity of the NPS to preserve late-18th and early-19th century battlefields.

While the administration’s proposed FY18 budget is certainly cause for concern given its potential to negatively impact the protection of historic and cultural resources, it is unlikely that Congress will enact appropriations bills at the extremely low levels that President Trump has proposed. In testimony to the Appropriations committees, the National Trust expressed support for many historic preservation programs, including deferred maintenance accounts that support much-needed work at many of our battlefields. Furthermore, we are working with our partners and champions on Capitol Hill to generate support for the National Park Legacy Act of 2017 (S. 751, H.R. 2584), which would provide a dedicated and reliable funding source for park maintenance programs. Advocacy efforts like these are necessary to protect all of our parks, especially our historic battlefields.

The Significance of Battlefields

Reductions in federal funding to preserve and interpret battlefields could not only do irrevocable harm to the sites but also limit the thoughtful dialogue about the future based on lessons from the past. Furthermore, when we fail to maintain our military parks, we negatively impact gateway communities that rely on the parks as economic drivers.

The Missouri State Memorial at Vicksburg National Military Park is in need of more than a quarter-million dollars for masonry work and other repairs. | Credit: Colin Walfield, National Park Service

On a recent visit to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, where deferred maintenance needs total $55.5 million, National Trust staff experienced the power of place. Standing on sites immortalized in American history and memory—Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, Pickett’s Charge—compelled us to reflect on the struggles that soldiers faced during the bloodiest battlefield of the Civil War. It challenged us to contemplate how the fight for freedom and equality still continues today.

Earlier this spring the National Trust completed a case study outlining the deferred maintenance needs—with a focus on historic assets—at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, where the backlog exceeds $18 million. One of the most monumented battlefields in the world, Vicksburg requires consistent funding to repair its memorials. Additional maintenance funding would secure bluffs for visitor safety and restore historic buildings for visitor access. With more than 500,000 visitors every year, the park is a significant economic driver, bringing more than $30.5 million to the local economy. Nationally, more than 307 million visitors experience the parks each year, spending $16.9 billion in gateway communities and generating $32 billion in national economic output.

Historic battlefields are also important to modern military and leadership instruction. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. War Department owned many battlefields and used them for tactical practice and drills. During World War I, training camps were installed at Gettysburg; Petersburg, Virginia; and Chickamauga, Georgia. Today, in addition to strategy and equipment training, battlefields across the nation are sites of leadership development—for example, the Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.

Getting Involved

Widespread support from historians, advocacy organizations, reenactors, and others who joined the National Trust in sending the American battlefields letter to Congress serves as a testament to the importance of these sites. Visiting them not only allows us to understand battle strategies but also encourages us to reflect on the causes for which our ancestors laid down their lives. In today’s challenging and often divisive climate, it is crucial that we protect our battlefields in order to better learn from our history and foster thoughtful dialogs about our future.

A look at one of the case studies put together on the repair backlog  at military history sites in the National Parks.

To help protect historic battlefields:

  • Call your senators and representative, and urge them to support the National Park Service Legacy Act, which will create a dedicated fund to address deferred maintenance and protect and preserve our battlefields.
  • Share our letter with preservation and cultural resource organizations in your community.
  • Write op-eds and letters to the editor in support of your local battlefields.
  • Visit a battlefield near you, and demonstrate to Congress how important it is to protect these irreplaceable resources.

Christine Luthy is the Government Relations program coordinator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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