Rachel "Sparks" Blackman (seattlesparks) wrote,
Rachel "Sparks" Blackman

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Politics and Archaeology

I don't usually post political things, but I'm going to post something about archaeology in the current political climate. As many of my friends know, I was majoring in archaeology when I dropped out of college to do engineering, and I'm still a member of the Archaeological Institute of America. Now, I admit my archaeological interests lie in classical (Greco-Roman), Egyptian (Dynastic and Ptolemaic), and Mesoamerican history; I tend to read the reports on those sort of digs with much more enthusiasm and interest than more recent archaeology, such as civil war battlefields. Normally I get more up-in-arms about things like cocaine smugglers and guerillas taking over Teyuna in Columbia and using archaeological sites as a base of operations.

So a recent report really stunned and surprised me, and I'm going to write up my thoughts on it.

America's historical battlefields are vanishing, and our government doesn't really seem to care.

This is, I will grant you, not a new problem; it was 1993 when a Congressional report cataloged 10,500 Civil War battle sites, and labeled 384 of them as 'principal sites.' The principal sites were the decisive, historical battles, and the report recommended $90 million to purchase those sites and preserve them as parks, warning that if we did not, fully two-thirds of the battlefields might be lost to development.

To put that funding in perspective, keep in mind that the Civil War movie Cold Mountain cost $50 million to make. And national historical parks generally benefit the local economy; even a lesser known park like Kentucky's Mill Springs with only 4,300 annual visitors, the revenue is still enough to pay for four full-time employees out of the revenue, additionally bringing in $83,000 in local business revenue and generating $25,000 in tax revenues. And large historical military site like Gettysburg National Military Park, with 1.6 million visitors per year, has enough to support 2,653 full-time employees, generates $52.2 million in local business income, and $17 in tax revenues.

Unfortunately, remaining portions of the historical battlefields have often been sold to developers. Morris Island, South Carolina, where the assault on Fort Wagner by the all African-American 54th Massachusetts regiment occurred -- the story portrayed in the film Glory -- is slated to become the site of twenty luxury mansions, which will be built on a site which includes the ruins of the fort itself, which will be demolished. Chancellorsville, Virginia, where "Stonewall" Jackson was mortally wounded, is currently being sought by a developer who wants to build atop the battlefield. Glendale, Virginia, where Lee nearly broke the Union military line, is already under development as a housing complex. These are merely a few of the recent casualties.

Some are even worse; in Mansfield, Louisiana, where Richard Taylor captured the Red River Valley for the Confederacy, has already had much of the battlefield torn up and used for strip mining for coal. When local civil war historians ask for artifacts found during mining to be preserved, the electric company who mines there defends their mining as 'responsible and wholly beneficial,' on the grounds that it keeps down the cost of electric power in the region and provides local employment.

Now, this development isn't wholly the Federal government's fault; local governments often make the final decisions on whether or not to protect these sites. And surely the Federal government has done a lot to preserve those sites! After all, Congress said back in 1993 that with only $90 million, they could preserve the most important sites, right?

The funding never came through entirely, though during the Clinton administration, there were handouts for preservation of these sites to the tune of $20 million. But of recent, the cutbacks in the Bush administration have terminated funding for many things. Fredericksburg has had the funds for maintaining historic masonry buildings cut, and despite half a million visitors per year has had the staff paid from federal funds cut from seventeen to two. Gettsyburg itself has had 75% of its federal funding cut, including the funds for preserving the historical military archives there.

Elaine Sevy, spokeswoman for the National Park Service, says that though there is a longstanding maintenance backlog, "we do live in a post-9/11 world. We are in a wartime situation right now, and budgets are tight throughout the Federal government." This same spokeswoman also states that National Park Service budgets have been increased each year since Bush took office, a statement which the National Park Service's own published numbers disagree with; the published numbers show that 85% of national parks have had their budgets cut in the past year alone.

Now, I make no secret of the fact that I'm not fond of the Bush administration; the erosion of our personal rights distresses me. But personal rights can be restored, and records of the past cannot; when the military archives at Gettsyburg deteriorate, for instance, they are gone forever.

When our government is supposedly out there fighting to defend our way of life, I'd expect a little more respect for the legacy of those who fought and died to establish those ways of life.
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