Posts Tagged ‘preservation’

Preconceptions and Perceptions

I did not want to write this post on Gettysburg. I’ve been dreading it for some time, but now it’s time, and I have to write it.

Gettysburg marks the place of one of the primary events in American history: the end of the farthest advance for the Confederacy, the turning point for the war that saved the Union, a war whose dead were honored in one of the greatest speeches ever given on American soil. This post should be an amateur historian’s dream.

But I can’t write about any of that. Instead, my mind goes to stuff like this:

Threats to Gettysburg

Land Use: The Second Battle of Gettysburg

Gettysburg, Ground Zero: Secular Sacred Spaces

For years, I’ve been reading about overdevelopment near Gettysburg. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote, describing all the fast-food restaurants, shopping plazas, and apartment blocks rising up near the Hallowed Ground. The despoilment of the views, the crush of traffic, the smell of greasy, fatty fried foods wafting through the monuments. When I finally made it to central Pennsylvania, I had all that … stuff … in my head. And that’s exactly what I saw, exactly what I smelled, exactly what I felt. Every time I stopped to read a memorial to a state’s militia, I saw parking lots. Every time I tried to contemplate the pained or foolish decisions of a military commander, a billboard loomed in the background. Every time I wanted to quietly ponder the fate of a slaughtered battalion, I smelled the unforgettable, rancid stink of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was distracted and ultimately disappointed by my visit.

But then an odd thing happened. In researching this post, I decided to do a little googlemapping. A couple of clicks later, I found something amazing: the stretch of developed road, the concentration of fast-food restaurants, the prevalent strip-malls, are really only in a small corner of the park. I then drove to the park again, years after my first trip, to see it again for myself. Now that I have a few more historical park visits behind me, I feel I can honestly say Gettysburg isn’t that bad. Which begs the question: is this level of development really an impingement on Gettysburg, or is all the press about the impingement on Gettysburg causing an impression on the visitors that isn’t necessarily true?

I have to be honest with you and with myself: as smart as I think I am, as impartially observant as I want to be, as factual and non-judgmental as I should be, I am still a human being, and I can still be influenced by the media, by public opinion, by emotion, and by rumor. I now think that’s what happened during my first visit to Gettysburg, and alas, those preconceptions effectively ruined my trip.

The problem of “paving over our history” is real. Every year, more historically significant sites and buildings are demolished, defaced, or allowed to fall into decay. There are reports of this all over the country, from adobe churches in New Mexico to the World Trade Center Vesey Sreet staircase. They even want to build a casino near Gettysburg (a terrible idea in my opinion). We’re losing or despoiling our heritage. It’s a sad thing.

Or is it?

Like all great ideas, the desire to protect our historical heritage can be taken too far. We can’t stagnate, we have to continue to make progress, and change is part of progress. I once read there is no stability, no steady-state, there is no maintaining the way things are (or were). There is only advancement through change, or there is entropy and decay. The battle of Gettysburg was fought around the existing village of Gettysburg, it would have been unfair to prevent that village from growing over time simply to preserve a battlefield. If we try to hold things close, try to latch on to the past, try to keep everything the same, we’ll never move forward, and succumb to entropy and decay. The town of Gettysburg would have died in the name of “preservation”.

When it comes to history, it is important that we preserve what is truly important, the sites that mark the true turning-point events, sites that can teach our generation and all the future generations, and put the continuing story of America into the proper context. But we can’t preserve everything that once was, because then we’d have no room for what will come. Historic preservation is like every other good idea: it can be taken too far.

But can we at least get rid of some of the KFCs out there?

[Again, I visited this site before I got a digital camera. Everything’s from the National Archives. I know this post isn’t what some of you may have expected. Trust me, I love Civil War history. Check out my Antietam and Chickamauga posts.]



No Casino Gettysburg

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Historic Preservation: Gentrification or Economic Development

National Archives Maps of Gettysburg

Appalachian Brewing Company

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A Spot of Preservation, Please

Devil’s Postpile is a tiny little National Park System spot, especially when compared to nearby juggernauts like Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Death Valley National Parks. It only covers about 800 acres, even Valley Forge NHS is bigger than that. It’s just there to save a singular geologic feature: a volcanic extrusion cooled in hexagonal basalt columns. Yeah, not too exciting, but hey, it’s not something you see every day. It’s just a tiny little spot of interest, preserved.

Postpile © 2009America In Context

Which sort of brings up a point. How big of a deal is it for someone to look at something and say “hey, that’s pretty neat, we should save that.” Well, apparently, it’s a pretty big deal. Postpile took a bit of effort to save. Long hidden in the high-altitude mazework of the eastern Sierra Nevada, people didn’t even know it existed until the late 1800s. Of course, it wasn’t too long until water interests showed up wanting to blow these extruded columns straight to hell to build their dams. As usual, the happy ending here was a group of concerned citizens & environmental groups raising awareness leading to the salvation of this unique pile of rocks.

San Joaquin River © 2009 America In ContextYeah, I know, here we go again. Those naïve environmental whackos, sacrificing the public good and economic growth for worthless blind cave fish or piles of grey rocks. Why should we preserve all these unimportant things when people can’t put food on the table or get a drop to drink? Fair questions, I suppose. Fair questions, that is, until you realize that so many times this destruction is either for naught, or is ill-placed, or the fruits of that destruction is itself wasted, or, even worse, it’s realized after the fact that all this destruction has doomed us all.

Looking specifically at the economic collapse we find ourselves in, which seemingly marks the end of our nation’s economic prosperity, I have to ask myself: was it really worth destroying portions of our nation’s environment for “economic expansion”, when our own greed-driven stupidity has halted that very economic expansion and set us all down the road to ruin? Our wealth has evaporated, our jobs have moved overseas, our education and health care systems have collapsed, and all we have to show for it is a scarred landscape. There are parts of Texas that are forever ruined thanks to sloppy oil drilling. There are parts of West Virginia forever despoiled thanks to mountaintop removal mining. Long Island Sound will likely never recover from the damage caused first by New England mill towns and later from over-fertilized suburban lawns.

Rainbow Falls © 2009 America In ContextI know there’s a delicate balance between environmental preservation and economic expansion. I know NIMBY-ism prevents good projects, like robust electrical grids, light rail, and hydroelectric & geothermal power (two truly renewable energy sources), from getting completed. And there have been some very helpful projects like Hoover Dam and the TVA that have been done and resulted in vast improvements in the quality of life for millions. But what bothers me is the environmental damage we have wrought for absolutely no reason other than building over-large, unsustainable houses no one can afford to live, and mega-mall shopping complexes where no one can afford to shop. We’ve ruined our landscape and have nothing to show for it but a nation in economic collapse.

I’m just suggesting that anytime zoning boards or developers or the Dept. of the Interior or Congress considers destroying a chunk of our natural world for some special project, they need to seriously consider “is it worth it over the long term,” or is it simply some get-rich-quick scheme for some special interest group that won’t provide a lick of true economic growth for the nation. I suspect that as long as these groups can be easily bought off or deluded, we’ll never make those intelligent decisions.

Fallen Columns © 2009 America In Context

At least we have places like Devil’s Postpile and other national, state, and municipal parklands. Well, for now that is, until some shyster convinces us that paving them over will lead to “economic prosperity”.

[Pics on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly. See my other Postpile pics here.]


Eagle © 2009 America In ContextLinks:

Devil’s Postpile National Monument

Environmental Valuation Blog

CIA World Factbook: Environment (yeah, I know it’s not directly related to the content of this blog post, but I stumbled across it and found it neat)

Google map to Devil’s Postpile

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Who Cares National Park

Poor Cuyahoga: the Park of No Love. The great national parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Olympic, Acadia, all the others) have huge amounts of visitors and worldwide acclaim. They have spectacular geologies or magnificent trees or rare wildlife. Everyone knows their names, knows what they are about. But no one cares about a little strip of land on a forgotten river nestled between two Rust Belt cities, a little strip of land known as Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Brandywine FallsCuyahoga is a park that preserves a small valley cut in the Appalachian Plateau. The Cuyahoga itself is a meandering river, most notable for a series of canals used as transport in the late 18th to early 19th century (before railroads took over). It’s nice that preservationists lobbied to protect this patch of river. I believe that we should strive to protect all natural areas (not just those with spectacular flora, fauna, or geology) wherever possible.

The problem lies with putting this spot in the National Park System. If you listen to “park-o-philes”, like those on National Parks Traveler, Cuyahoga NP is the result of pork-barrel spending that most Americans heavily despise. I don’t know how to react to that. Usually pork projects only benefit those who win the contracts to build them. Sometimes these projects end up having no value to the community whatsoever, being proverbial white elephants until some future pork barrel project tears them down or repurposes them in an endless cycle of valueless taxpayer expenditures.

Everett Road Covered BridgeBut does government money spent on natural preservation count as “pork”? Many believe so. I don’t. See, I believe that natural preservation is the gift that keeps on giving. Natural lands help clean the air and water, and provide habitat for wildlife and plants. They also act as carbon sinks, something the world needs a lot more of right now. Parks also provide venues for recreation and a chance for urbanites and suburbanites to experience nature (something heavily needed in the manufacturing-laden cities of the Old Northwest Territories).

ButterflySome, especially those who want to profit off land development, think these “benefits” are a crock of tree-hugging bullshit. It’s just getting in the way of progress and economic development. But think about it: do we really need to carve up more of our fields & woodlands? Do we really need to divert more rivers or fill in more swamps in the name of “economic development”? Take a look around: everywhere you travel, you see abandoned properties, empty factories, vacant strip malls. Do we really need to pave over nature to build more crap, when we have thousands, if not millions, of already-paved land just sitting there, doing nothing? Couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, redevelop these existing stains on the landscape for economic development? Do we really need to make new stains? That’s what I think is bullshit.

Yeah, turning Cuyahoga into a National Park probably wasn’t the best use of taxpayer money, but at least there’s a stretch of green in the middle of Rust Belt America. I think it’s needed.

Beaver Marsh

[I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Cuyahoga Valley. Pics are courtesy of the National Park Service. Actually, they have some pretty nice photos on their Cuyahoga website.]

[UPDATE: I visited Cuyahoga again since my original post. I now have some pics, located here.]



Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Benefits of Open Space Preservation: Land Trust Alliance

Citizens Against Government Waste 2008 Report (Dept. of Interior)

Google map to Cuyahoga Valley

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Dull Is Good

Chickasaw, located in south-central Oklahoma, is part of the transition zone between eastern woodlands and the great plains, and contains campgrounds, hiking trails, horse trails, and the large, artificial Lake of the Arbuckles. Like Catoctin Mountain, Chickasaw is sparse on natural wonders and unremarkable in flora and fauna, but it serves a purpose in providing recreation to the hard-working folks of Oklahoma.

Black Sulfur Springs Pavilion -- Public Domain Photo Courtesy of National Park ServiceIt does have some funky natural springs. There’s something exotic in the geology of the area that causes half a dozen or so natural springs of differing qualities. Some are infused with sulfur (hence the name of the nearby town of Sulphur) and are therefore highly poisonous. Others have similarly nasty high levels of arsenic, or high levels of copper, or are perfectly safe mineral springs. For amateur geologists in the audience, the place is pretty interesting for these features. The Chickasaw Nation Native Americans saw the value of these springs soon after they were relocated from Alabama & Mississippi, and preserved it for decades before deeding it to the National Park Service.

Chickasaw NRA was originally called Platt National Park, which brings up a different topic. If one looks at the range of spectacular sites called National Parks, from the Everglades to Yellowstone to the Gates of the Arctic, most of them have truly spectacular vistas, abundant & rare wildlife, or grand natural features. But some preserved sites in the NPS, like Chickasaw, Catoctin Mountain, Cuyahoga Valley, and others, aren’t particularly grand or exciting. I’m sure it begs the question: why are these lackluster sites part of the National Park Service?

Travertine Creek -- Public Domain Photo Courtesy of National Park ServiceIn my opinion, one of the big problems with this country is its evolution from the United States of America to the United States of Generica. From sea to shining sea, almost without fail, you’ll see the same strip malls, the same chain restaurants, the same big box retailers. Even regional slangs & accents are starting to disappear, thanks to mass media. It’s nice in one way, you can travel across this whole country without getting into serious cultural trouble. But it has also made the country less interesting, blander, more vanilla.

Unfortunately, in a world of cookie-cutter cul de sacs, abusive irrigation, strip mining, and invasive plant species, the nation’s natural diversity is also at risk of “genericization”. People tend to want to preserve grandiose vistas, but aren’t particularly interested in preserving boring things like hardwood forests, meandering rivers, or expansive grasslands. These things are boring, so, why bother, right? Well, all of these things help keep America beautiful, keep it from becoming one great swath of vanilla blandness.

It’s nice that the people of Oklahoma can experience a natural blend of eastern deciduous forest and prairie grassland at Chickasaw. It’s nice to see the people of Maryland can experience a natural mountain forest at Catoctin. It’s nice to see the people of Ohio can experience a natural river ecosystem. Yes, these things aren’t particularly interesting to tourists, but they keep the country from truly becoming the United States of Generica in a natural sense. These sites act as anchors to the world as it used to be, and provide the variety our country needs.

Sunset Over Lake of the Arbuckles -- Public Domain Photo Courtesy of National Park Service

[Sadly, I didn’t have a digital camera when I visited Chickasaw. Public domain photos courtesy of the National Park Service]


Chickasaw National Recreation Area

Chickasaw Indian Nation

Support Generica!

Google Map to Chickasaw

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