New Va. park has long road in front of it

Preservation: Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park faces a years-long struggle to become the information-packed site that its backers hope it will become.

October 12, 2003|By Luciana Lopez | Luciana Lopez,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In late July, when a visitor to the new Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park walked into the headquarters of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, Danny Ambrose got a reminder of just how far the national park still has to grow.

Ambrose, the assistant administrator at the foundation, remembers that the man walked in, took a quick look around and asked incredulously, "Is this it?"

That visitor was blunter than most, but he wasn't too far off the mark. With almost no funding for the moment and the prospect of a planning process that takes years, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park in Virginia faces an uphill battle to become the information-packed site that many think it could be.

"The transition of the creation of a national park is one of those things where it is definitely a slow process," said Sandy Rives, the Virginia director of the National Park Service and acting administrator for the new park until someone else is hired.

`Not much money'

Lack of funding hasn't helped. "The Cedar Creek and Belle Grove park got created so late in the fiscal year that it didn't have any budget," Rives said. "It's tough to [run a park] with not much money."

The park service is trying to get funding for the next fiscal year, which began this month, Rives added.

Another time-consumer is the writing of a management plan, a blueprint for managing the park and its interactions with private landowners inside the boundary of the park (the National Park Service is one of several landowners at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove).

The legislation authorizing the park requires the plan to be completed in three years. But once the plan is written, implementing it could stretch a few years longer.

"You can feel frustrated because it's not a direct process, but I think that, in cases like this, the time that it takes to put it together is probably well spent," said Howard Kittell, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Association.

The association is one of four private-sector partners in the park, all of them preservation organizations that own land within the boundaries of the 3,000-acre national park. Although the partners are not government agencies, they still have a role in managing the area, as spelled out in the legislation that formed the park.

Coping with the influx of visitors has largely fallen on those partners, especially the two that are on-site: Belle Grove Inc., which runs the Belle Grove plantation, and the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, which preserves battlefields used in the Battle of Cedar Creek in the Civil War.

`Growing pain stage'

"We're in the transitional growing pain stage," said Elizabeth McClung, the executive director of Belle Grove. "We're having to make a quantum leap."

Representatives from Belle Grove and the foundation went to Washington in July to request an emergency $600,000 to help with the new visitors. That money would help with things like research, site planning and visitor support - including putting in more restrooms.

The larger numbers of visitors mean more wear and tear on the plantation house, which dates to the 18th century, McClung said. "We like visitors to have access. We hope we don't have to have velvet ropes set up" to prevent increased numbers of guests from damaging the antique-filled building.

`On the front lines'

"We are on the front lines," said Suzanne Chilson, the executive director of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation. "We're handling the park service's work at this time."

The public perception is that once a national park is announced, it's "a done deal," Chilson said. "Two weeks after the park was announced, people called and wanted to know where to launch their canoes."

Instead, the shift has barely begun: there are no brochures, no visitor center and no park rangers. Even the land remains endangered by the pressure of development, since the private landowners retain the rights to develop their land. The national park designation does "not a thing" to restrict those landowners, Rives said.

"If a particular landowner wants to do something on their particular property, they really have to follow what county zoning regulations allow," Rives said.

About 1,000 acres within the park's boundaries is held by the federal or local government, or by one of the private partners, he said, adding that the park service hopes either they or one of the partners will try to buy "as much of that land as makes sense in order to tell the story and preserve the history there."

Slow but smooth

Yet while the process is advancing slowly, it is nonetheless running smoothly, said Rob Nieweg, director of the Southern Field Office at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"I think the transition has been going very well," Niewig said. "This is stuff that's done extremely carefully."

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