At the park: Keep it like it is, or make it like it was?|[04/18/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 18, 2008

When Myra Logue, a licensed tour guide, gives tours of the Vicksburg National Military Park, it’s often hard to give park visitors a clear idea of where the battle lines between the North and South were drawn during the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg.

“When I’m explaining it, I tell them to look at the cannons, and, then, I point at trees,” she said.

Since that historic event — one that led to the fall of Vicksburg and Union control of the Mississippi River — trees and other vegetation have been planted and now cover the area where soldiers fought. The scene, according to Logue, is not even close to representing what the soldiers saw during that summer of fighting.

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Re-creating something similar to what it looked like before fighting began and before Congress mandated a park be built to commemorate the campaign, siege and defense of Vicksburg, is one of the options proposed in a Cultural Landscape Report and Environmental Assessment. Logue was one of several ready to share her thoughts Thursday afternoon at a public hearing to explain four alternatives the park is considering.

“What I’d like even more is if they took all the trees down between the (battle) lines,” she said, as she discussed her support for Alternative D, an option that would remove 350 acres of trees from the park to allow more visibility and a closer representation of what the park looked like in 1863. Currently, the park has 1,800 acres, 550 of which are cleared.

Although Logue said she likes trees “as much as the next person,” certain places in the park would be better without them, she said.

“So many people think that the trees have been here since (the Civil War). These trees aren’t 200 years old,” she said. “There’s nothing special about these trees. There’s a place for them and between the lines is not the place.”

Retired tour guide Betty Graham said going with Alternative C, a proposed plan that would rehabilitate areas of key military engagements — Graveyard Road, Old Jackson Road to Pemberton Avenue and Railroad Redoubt — and would require about 90 acres of tree clearing, might be a better option.

“I haven’t given it all the study I should, but I lean more toward D or C. With C, everybody won’t fight us as bad,” she said. “It’s needed badly.”

She, like Logue, said it was hard to give visitors a complete idea of what the landscape looked like. In explaining the area, her most common comment would be, “but it didn’t look like this,” she said.

Monika Mayr, superintendent of the park, said, about a year ago, park officials began to discuss how the park could further meet its mandates to Congress, imposed in 1899. The mandate required the park “commemorate the campaign, siege and defense of Vicksburg, and to preserve the history of the battles and operations of the siege and defense of the ground where they were fought and were carried on.” Park officials met in June to hear public comments. Since then, a project team, made up of local, regional and federal park officials, contractors and officials with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, have identified the park’s landscape at various time periods and developed alternatives for landscape changes and mitigation for environmental impacts to develop a cultural landscape report and environmental assessment.

The first alternative, Alternative A, proposes no change to the way the park is maintained and managed. Alternative B would step up efforts to protect the remaining evidence of the Civil War siege and an increased effort to prevent erosion and remove exotic plants, such as kudzu, from the landscape. The plan would also enhance interpretation of the park by adding advanced technology and media, as well as providing additional exhibits and waysides.

Alternative C is one that would, in addition to removing trees and vegetation, add walking trails to natural features and monitor migration changes in wildlife. Similarly, Alternative D, although it would clear the largest area of trees and vegetation, would also allow the park’s Civil War-era resources to be visualized more clearly. It, too, would create walking trails that would encourage visitors to leave their vehicles and venture from the 16-mile tour road that lines the park.

As Tom Kean, a retired geophysicist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center, walked around the room of the park’s former administration building Thursday, he weighed the pros and cons of each alternative.

“Consider the expense and damage you would do if you clear too much. I go by an old geological principle, ‘The purpose of weather is to flatten the Earth flat,'” he said. “If you clear the vegetation out now, you run into an erosion problem. And, it probably isn’t cost-effective to do that.”

Mayr said, before cost becomes an issue, the focus will be to decide on and develop a plan.

“We have no money to do (alternatives) B, C or D. So, a plan is the first step in getting a budget increase,” she said. “Once we sign plans, that will be a much better justification (for an increase in funds).”

The park will be accepting public comments through May 2. Plans are to, by July, identify the preferred alternative. The group will, then, draft the cultural landscape report and environmental assessment by October and present it to the public. In December, the final reports will be prepared and submitted by January.

“I’m happy with the range of alternatives,” Mayr said. “We’re at a stage where we’re presenting a range of options. We don’t have a preferred alternative, so we’re getting everyone’s opinions so we can tweak it.”

To commentPublic comments on the proposed alternatives for cultural landscape rehabilitation of the Vicksburg National Military Park will be accepted through May 2. Comments may be submitted online at migration changes in birds, mammals, reptiles, water and plants to detect changes and determine if modifications are needed for subsequent phases of clearing and reforesting of between 20 and 25 acres of currently cleared areas.Alternative D — Rehabilitate/Maintain the Broad Spectrum of Military Engagements would focus on enhancing the legibility of the park’s Civil War-era resources and associations by removing large, continuous areas of *woodland cover that wasn’t present during the siege. About 350 acres of clearing would be proposed. Waysides and walking trails to military features would enhance interpretation for visitors and trails to natural features would be maintained by the community. Best management practices would be used during and after clearing, and monitoring of changes in birds, mammals, water, reptiles and plants would be done to detect changes and determine if modifications are needed for subsequent phases of clearing and reforesting of between 20 and 25 acres of currently cleared areas.Two additional alternatives were considered, but are no longer under consideration. They were Restoration to Civil War Siege Period, which would depict the land as it was in 1863, and Restoration to Park Development Period, which would depict the land as it was 1899-1917. Implementation of each of the phases would require acquisition of additional parcels of land, which have been heavily affected by adjacent development. Exceptions would also have to be made for the inclusion of features that don’t date to the specified restoration, such as commemorative monuments and the Visitor Center, which would negate the concept of the alternatives.The alternativesAlternatives for cultural landscape rehabilitation at the Vicksburg National Military Park under consideration are: Alternative A — Continue Existing Management, would mean the park would maintain its present landscape patterns and features and continue to manage and maintain them.Alternative B — Preservation through Best Management Practices would mean the park would take steps to protect remaining evidence of the Civil War siege, including remaining landform and topography, earthworks, road traces and corridors and archaeological resources. Preventing erosion and removing exotic plants will de done by implementing best management practices. Advanced technology and media would also be used to enhance interpretation along with additional exhibits and waysides.Alternative C – Rehabilitate/Maintain Areas of Key Military Engagements would mean the park would remove the least woodland cover needed to reveal the most important historic landscape relationships. It also would provide for additional interpretive exhibits and devices to support visitor understanding of the events of 1863. Walking trails to natural features would be maintained by the community and about 90 acres of clearing would be proposed. The park would