Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A federal law that essentially bans any more construction on the National Mall might prevent an attempt to “nationalize” the District of Columbia World War I Memorial, a National Park Service official said Tuesday.

The Commemorative Works Act passed in 2003 prohibits the construction of new memorials — including a tribute to veterans of the “great war” — leaving the District’s site, about halfway between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, as an apt vehicle for a national World War I Memorial.

Yet the law may also prevent any changes to the city’s memorial, as contemplated in a House resolution to rededicate the site as the “District of Columbia and National World War I Memorial,” according to Peter May, associate regional director for Lands, Resources, and Planning with the National Capital Region of the Park Service.

“For these reasons the department has serious concerns with [the bill] and would like to work with the committee to address those concerns,” Mr. May told a House Natural Resources subcommittee on behalf of the Department of the Interior.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, and a companion bill by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, also would rededicate the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City as the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

“The United States has done little, if anything, to recognize that Americans fought in World War I,” Mr. Poe told the subcommittee. “The worst casualty of war is to be forgotten.”

Mr. Poe noted there are national memorials on the Mall to those who fought in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

“But there is no memorial for all who served in the great World War I,” he said.

Supporters of the bill say a national memorial would respect the integrity of the original city memorial with minimal physical adornments. It would also increase its visibility, prompting more tourists to learn about the war, they say.

But D.C. officials are vehemently opposed to any changes to their memorial, which is located north of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in West Potomac Park.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting member of Congress, say the attempt is an affront to a city that must pay federal taxes and submit its laws and budget to Congress for approval even though its residents do not have full voting rights on Capitol Hill.

The D.C. memorial was dedicated by President Hoover in 1931 to honor the 26,000 city residents who fought in World War I and the 499 who died.

“It’s our memorial,” Nelson Rimensnyder, of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of D.C., told the subcommittee.

The park service and city officials celebrated the reopening of the memorial in November after a yearlong, $2.3 million project to refurbish the domed, round, columned structure and conduct much-needed landscaping around the site.

Some proponents of a national memorial point to Pershing Park, named for World War I Gen. John J. Pershing and located near the White House, as an alternative location.

Edwin Fountain, a key member of the World War I Foundation pushing the legislation, said the D.C. memorial on the Mall is the most appropriate site to honor all of the war’s veterans, but an alternate location is “better than having no national memorial.”

Mr. Fountain said Mr. May’s testimony presented a rather “lawyerly” view of the act that restricts construction or site changes on the mall.

“I believe that what we’re proposing fits within the act,” he said. “Other than the courts, Congress can interpret its own statute.”

Mr. Fountain said he hopes Congress “does something sooner rather than later” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the conflict, “or else we’re going to miss the opportunity to do anything in conjunction with the centennial.”

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