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Preservationists ask Obama for Fort Monroe designation
By Kate Wiltrout
One of the most influential preservation groups in the nation is asking President Barack Obama to designate Fort Monroe as a national monument in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation sent a letter to the president on Wednesday requesting that he use the Antiquities Act to protect and preserve the soon-to-be-former Army fort at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
That designation is the quickest way to create a new National Park Service unit - the stated goal of local, state and federal officials determining the future of the waterfront fort after the Army leaves in September. Commands at Fort Monroe are being moved elsewhere to save money.
Traditionally, new national park units require congressional approval. Virginia's representatives and senators are working on making that happen, but it's a slower process.
"We want to get across the finish line here," said Rob Nieweg, director of the preservation trust's southern field office. "Whether it's a legislative solution or presidential proclamation, the goal is a strong and protective partnership."
Virginia would still play a significant role in management of the 570-acre property. The state-appointed Fort Monroe Authority is preparing to manage hundreds of buildings outside the moated stone fort, and would strictly control development on existing open space.
But historians, local officials and state and federal experts agree that the stone fortress itself would best be managed by the park service.
With a little more than three months remaining until the property-transfer date, momentum began to shift from the congressional approach to the executive one.
"It's been a double-barrelled effort," said Bill Armbruster, executive director of the Fort Monroe Authority. "We're working both sides of it. We're absolutely bowled over with the support we're getting for the park service initiative."
The trust doesn't often ask the president to take such actions. In recent years, it has made requests for just two other monument designations: Canyon of the Ancients in Colorado and President Abraham Lincoln's summer cottage in Washington, D.C. Both campaigns succeeded.
President George W. Bush used the Antiquities Act at the end of his second term, when he protected vast swaths of the Pacific Ocean from oil exploration and commercial enterprises.
Those marine monuments are far different from the brick-and-mortar history that lives at Fort Monroe, where slaves fled for protection from their owners in the opening days of the Civil War. As such, the trust contends, it's the birthplace of a little-known but crucial chapter of American history.
After the first three so-called "contrabands" escaped to the Union-held fort and were granted sanctuary, tens of thousands of slaves fled to Hampton. The dynamic repeated itself across the South when Union armies approached rebel territory.
With the anniversary of the Civil War bringing that conflict back into the national consciousness, the time is right to make such a request, Nieweg said.
"This is an absolute win-win, where the stars are aligned and we have every hope the White House will act - perhaps this summer - in a really positive way."
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, firstname.lastname@example.org