- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2008

It’s the Battle of Bookworms vs. the Big Box.

Preservationists and prominent historians are waging a dogged campaign against a proposed 138,000-square-foot Wal-Mart supercenter next to the Civil War’s Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County, Va.

“No one has a deeper, more abiding respect for all that this ground symbolizes than the men and women who make it their lives’ work to study historic sites and events,” said Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History. “And clearly, they understand the irreparable damage that this would do to a tangible piece of our history.”

The controversy - the latest between battlefield preservationists across the country and those wanting to develop on or next to them - intensified this month when Wal-Mart filed a formal application with Orange County to build the supercenter on a roughly 50-acre site.

The request prompted a letter signed by 253 historians asking the Arkansas-based corporation to “respect our great nation’s history and move your store farther away from this historic site and National Park.”

The historians - which include Emmy-winning documentarian Ken Burns, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors David M. McCullough and James McPherson, and college professors - say the store would lead to increased traffic and development that would “spoil the battlefield.”

They also say only 20 percent of the battlefield is protected by the National Park Service, and building the supercenter would undermine efforts to preserve more of the land.

“This wilderness is an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved,” says the letter, addressed to Wal-Mart President and Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott and coordinated by the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition. “Surely Wal-Mart can identify a site that would meet its needs without changing the very character of the battlefield.”

Wal-Mart’s proposal involves a location not within National Park Service boundaries, but within the historical boundary of the battlefield, said officials with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

In Western Maryland, developers want to put up a 120-foot-tall cell phone tower at the site of the Battle of Antietam, according to a report in March by the Civil War Preservation Trust.

The tower would rise above the tree line and could be seen throughout much of the more than 6,200-acre site, said trust officials who this year put Antietam on its annual list of the 10 most endangered Civil War battlefields.

Trust officials also are concerned about the Cedar Creek Battlefield, in Middletown, Va. They say the site faces potential threats from a mining operation, the widening of Intestate 81 and power-line construction.

Other sites on the trust’s list are in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia.

Wal-Mart spokesman Keith Morris said the company has met with community and preservation stakeholders about the Wilderness Battlefield project and hopes to work with them on their concerns.

He said the supercenter will take up roughly 17 acres of the site, with the rest used for such additions as vegetation and a natural buffer for the battlefield.

Mr. Morris also pointed out that the site is zoned commercial. He said the retailer should not be held accountable for additional development that follows the supercenter.

“Obviously, we are aware and we respect the fact that the Wilderness Battlefield area is further down from our site,” he said. “That battlefield area is preserved, and it should always be preserved. That notwithstanding, our site is zoned for the use we’re proposing … There’s no reason the two uses can’t be done in harmony with one another.”

The Battle of the Wilderness was fought in May 1864 and marked the first battlefield matchup between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.

There were nearly 18,000 Union casualties, which includes soldiers killed, wounded, missing or captured. Estimates place Confederate casualties at roughly 11,000.

Wal-Mart must receive a special-use permit to build on the site - despite it already being zoned for commercial development - because the project is more than 60,000 square feet, said David Grover, director of the Orange County Department of Community Development.

A meeting to help coordinate among state and county agencies and other parties on proposed conditions for the project is set for Jan. 20, Mr. Grover said.

After that, the application would have to clear the county’s planning commission and board of supervisors, along with public hearings scheduled along the way.

Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust, said it’s too early to discuss any possible legal action to prevent construction. He said opponents are hoping “to take full advantage” of public discussions prior to project approval.

“National parks are fragile entities,” he said. “Putting development right up next to a park is a recipe for disaster.”

Walt Disney Co. abandoned plans for an American history theme park five miles from the Manassas Civil War battlefield in 1994. The proposed 3,000-acre park was opposed by nearby property owners - including prominent political commentators such as Pat Buchanan - as well as historians and environmentalists.

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