Historians, preservationists, history buffs and military strategists applaud it. Environmentalists and so-called “tree-huggers” abhor it. Perhaps nothing in recent times at the Gettysburg National Military Park (with the possible exception of the demolition of the National Tower a decade ago) has sparked more controversy than the recent tree-cutting. The National Park Service is in the midst of a multi-year project to restore parts of the battlefield to some semblance of their appearance in 1863 when the U.S. Army battled forces from the Confederate States of America on the hills and pastures surrounding Gettysburg. The sounds of chain saws and logging trucks now boom out over fields where cannons and muskets once roared.
The Park Service is restoring dozens of missing orchards in their historic places, rebuilding fencelines that have been gone for a century or more, and planting trees to replace woodlots that have long been open fields. None of this has fueled emotions as much as the clear-cutting of acres of trees in areas where woods were not present in 1863. As farmers sold their land to the private Gettysburg Battlefield Commission, or later, the National Park Service and other organizations, the land was no longer cultivated for crops. Over time, dense woods emerged where corn, rye, oats and clover once grew – places where soldiers fought and, at times, died. Trees and underbrush surrounded monuments to their courage and memory. The NPS began taking down these trees to restore sight lines and help the battlefield tramper better understand the fighting and what occurred where (and why).
The current focus is on restoring the pastures around the McMillan farm, a historic homestead on West Confederate Avenue used for a time by Robert E. Lee as a vantage point to watch the Union lines on distant Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge. It was also an important artillery platform. For decades, the gun line has pointed into the trees, and it was hard for casual visitors to understand why this position was so important. The new view opens to the Gettysburg Recreational Park, but now allows the viewer to get some idea of why the guns were placed where they were. The other focal point is the woods just west of Devil’s Den and Houck’s Ridge, an area where thousands of men and boys from Alabama, Arkansas and Texas advanced on elements of the Union Third Corps on the rocky heights.
Which side of the controversy are you on? Do you applaud and support the National Park Service’s efforts to restore the battlefield and encourage their authorities to continue or accelerate the master plan? Or, are you abhorred by the clear-cutting of acres of trees (they are keeping trees suspected of being present when the soldiers battled it out)? Or, do you simply not care at all – the park service can do what it wants with public land?