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Editorial: Federal battlefield bill would serve Virginia and future generations

Legislation to strengthen the federal program that preserves and protects historic battlefields is making its way through Congress with bipartisan support and a good chance of becoming law.

Sens. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, teamed with Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Mississippi Republican, to introduce the American Battlefield Protection Program Enhancement Act in the Senate.  Virginia’s Sen. Mark Warner is a co-sponsor.

The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed a similar bill.

The bill would give the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program additional tools to use as it continues the efforts that have already preserved more than 35,000 acres of historic land in 20 states.

Kaine and Warner know that if the bill becomes law, Virginia — with its rich history and many Revolutionary and Civil War battle sites — stands to benefit greatly.

Among the Revolutionary War battles fought in Virginia were those at Hampton, Kemp’s Landing and Great Bridge in Hampton Roads. The decisive 1781 battle that ended with the surrender of British troops to George Washington’s Continental Army was fought in September and October 1781 at Yorktown.

In the next century, Virginia was the scene of far more Civil War clashes than any other state — 122 battles, according to the American Battlefield Protection Program. The next highest number was 38 in Tennessee. The commonwealth has the sites of the storied naval battle between the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Merrimack at the Hampton Roads harbor and Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse which effectively ended the war.

The new legislation would encourage more public-private partnerships by allowing nonprofits and tribes to apply directly for ABPP funds, rather than just government officials. It would clarify what sites are eligible for grants.

It would allow efforts to expand boundaries of battlefields when evidence emerges to show they were larger than originally thought. The Green Spring Battlefield in James City County, site of one of the last battles in Virginia before Yorktown, falls into that category.

The legislation would allow ABPP funds to be used for battlefield restoration in parks owned by states or nonprofits. Virginia has several locations that might benefit.

If passed, the legislation should boost efforts to preserve the Williamsburg Battlefield, scene of an 1862 Civil War battle. Much of the land had been lost to development, but the American Battlefield Trust has used ABPP matching funds to buy about 240 acres in one tract and 29 acres in a second.

If the legislation passes, it will be good news for Virginia and Hampton Roads in more ways than one.

Certainly, it will enhance efforts to preserve our rich history so that future generations will know more about how this nation and our society came to be. The struggles and bloodshed of the wars to win independence and, in the next century, to end the institution of slavery that was threatening to destroy the union are important parts of that story. In recent years, we have made progress in telling the truth of the story, including the ways in which we have sometimes fallen short of the founders’ ideals.

Then there’s the more measurable benefits to the tourism economy that enhanced and new historic battlefields will bring.

A 2017 study prepared by Virginia Commonwealth University for Preservation Virginia estimated that “heritage tourists” — those who travel to see for themselves the places and activities that tell the “authentic” stories of the past and present — spent about $7.7 billion a year in Virginia, a figure that no doubt dropped amid the disruptions of COVID but is on the rise again.

In Hampton Roads, the combined lure of history along with beaches, outdoor recreation, and seafood attracts many tourists who stay for a few days, spending on food, lodging, visits to museums, souvenirs and gasoline.

Let’s hope that, with its bipartisan support, the legislation to enhance this worthwhile and successful federal program that helps tell America’s story will make it through this contentious Congress.