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The Park Service's time at Ft. Monroe
As officials at the National Park Service begin work on legislation to preserve the long and rich history of Fort Monroe, they should keep their own agency's recent history in mind.
Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb have asked the Park Service to draft a bill to create a national park at the 570-acre base in Hampton. The Army is scheduled to depart in September and turn the land over to the state of Virginia.
Among the details still unsettled is how large the park would be. Last fall, the Park Service expressed interest in about 100 acres, primarily in and around the stone fortress and moat.
But there are reasons to think bigger.
The fort's history, stretching back to the early 1600s, encompasses a multitude of significant stories little known to most Americans. The most dramatic is the role that Fort Monroe played in the exodus of slaves from captivity at the start of the Civil War - a story of heroism and sacrifice that earned it the name "Freedom's Fortress."
If handled properly, that story alone could place Fort Monroe alongside Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown as the region's major tourist destinations and education centers.
There are other, more recent episodes that should prompt Park Service officials to go well beyond the 100 acres they identified last fall.
To name a few: Gettysburg. Manassas. Cold Harbor. Chancellorsville. The Wilderness. As Park Service officials well know, those historic landmarks - and many, many others - have been at the center of fierce, costly preservation battles in recent decades.
As development encroached upon parkland, coalitions of historians, preservationists and Park Service officials scurried to build public-private partnerships to acquire land adjacent to national parks. Often, they failed. The Park Service viewed those preservation efforts as essential to protecting the integrity of the landmarks and the experiences of park visitors.
Today, at Fort Monroe, the agency can avoid setting the stage for such conflicts.
Park Service officials have an opportunity to ensure sufficient land is set aside. They can protect views of the Chesapeake Bay integral to understanding the fort's role in American history. They can preserve areas known to be historically significant as well as those that may yield valuable information as more research is conducted.
Planning for a large park would not interfere with long-discussed plans to create at Fort Monroe something similar to the Presidio of San Francisco, a historic Army installation folded into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Houses and other buildings at the Presidio are leased out to help pay for maintenance and operation. The same can occur at Fort Monroe.
But, as they set aside land for protection, the National Park Service and Congress must take care not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Think big now.