Wednesday, March 21, 2012
A national treasure is getting a new look due to ongoing restoration and preservation efforts at the Chickamauga Battlefield.
A landscape once marked by impenetrable thickets of privet is being cleared by contracted workers using hand tools, chain saws and, most importantly, Bobcat excavators and skid loaders.
“This is probably part of a 10-year project,” said Jim Szyjkowski chief of resource management at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. “It started very slowly as a Boy Scout’s Eagle Scout project that cleared a spot at Tour Stop 2. We have gradually added to the work and have removed a lot of the understory throughout the park.”
A National Park Service history describes actions that led to legislation adopted in 1890 that established the park, saying:
“Since the purpose would be to maintain the park in its historic condition, they (Congressional committees) also noted that there had been scarcely any changes in the roads, fields, forests, and houses at Chickamauga since the battle, except in the growth of underbrush and timber, which could easily be removed. Taken together, these battlefields offered unparalleled opportunities for historical and professional military study of the operations of two great armies as they both encountered the multiple military obstacles created by forests, steep mountains, open fields, and streams.”
But over time the once clear landscape was steadily overgrown, particularly by non-native plants like Chinese privet, and vegetation blocked trails, sightlines, monuments and cannon throughout the park’s 5,300 acres.
Even to those who work there or pass through on a daily basis, clearing away decades of benign neglect has made the park look new and different.
“The biggest improvements occurred when landscape maintenance shifted from 10-15 Boy Scouts hacking at a line of privet and having a machine that can do in an hour what they could do in several days,” Szyjkowski said. “Now you can see the battle lines.”
First-time visitors are not the only ones to benefit from clearing the forest. Szyjkowski said that before the work began hunting for monuments — even for park rangers equipped with “excellent maps drawn in 1896 by Edward Betts that showed their location” — was like going on an Easter egg hunt.
“The first goal was to make a path to monuments,” he said. “Some were so surrounded by vegetation you couldn’t find them even if you knew where to look.”
But as the 150th commemoration of the mid-September 1863 battle approaches, work progresses on making the park more closely resemble its appearance when veterans of the battle marked where they fought on its hallowed ground.
The results make it possible to better view the terrain and imagine the fierce fighting that laid waste to field and forest on the park’s 5,300 acres of hallowed ground.
Signs where contract workers are busy cutting privet and chipping deadwood read:
“Landscape Restoration. In Sept. of 1863 this area was a mature hardwood forest with very little underbrush. The farmer built a fence around the crops and let his livestock graze the woods surrounding the fields. The Park is working to restore this land so that it resembles the historic landscape at the time of the Battle of Chickamauga.”
So far, Szyjkowski said the public response to this overdue maintenance has been amazingly positive.
“The acreage is the same, but now the park is open so you can see where you’re going and it is possible to go from place to place through the woods,” he said.
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