Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park: An Economic Driver

The Innis house along the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. NPT file photo.

Communities across the country often troll for new businesses to provide jobs and overall economic development, but when you have a national park in your backyard, how do you balance development and preservation? And can that preservation itself equate with economic development?

When it comes to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in northern Virginia, development continues to encroach on the Civil War history and landscapes preserved by this park. That development is not without its direct and indirect impacts on the park and its role both in the National Park System and in the community.

A just-released study by the National Parks Conservation Association points out that not only does the national park preserve history in its four battlefields, but it also provides much-needed recreational open space for area residents. So on one hand the park is a strong component of the region's tourism industry and provides quality-of-life benefits. But on the other hand it is struggling with growing demands for recreation that the park is not well-suited to accommodate.

“As this area gets built up, more people look to the park as a place to walk, ride bikes, and get out in nature,” Russ Smith, the park's superintendent, told the NPCA. “Some of that is fine, but we have to be watchful so history doesn’t get overrun by recreation. We’re all learning how to live with development here. We’ll probably be managing some level of conflict among different park users—and different expectations about how to manage our roads and trails—for a long time."

Joy Oakes, the NPCA's senior Mid-Atlantic regional director, sees opportunities for surrounding communities to leverage the park's attraction by developing complementary destinations.

“A park’s long-term economic benefits to its neighbors are directly linked to its integrity and its setting," said Ms. Oakes. "Localities can protect the park’s historic character, and meet growing demand for recreational opportunities, by developing new trails, local and state parks providing access to camping and water, and implementing other strategies that are compatible with protecting the park and the region’s historic character.”

But how much will or agreement do communities have to do that? That question comes to life at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania in the long-standing battle over whether to allow a Wal-Mart to be built in a historically significant area just beyond the park's borders. What greater economic good would be derived, that from another department store, or that from a protected landscape that's historically significant?

The NPCA report sides with the benefits of preservation. In doing so, it notes that development threats to the region’s historic character "are relentless."

Population growth in Fredericksburg and in Caroline, Orange, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties has outpaced that of Virginia and of the country for decades. Spotsylvania and Stafford consistently rank among the fastest-growing counties in the state. In 2003, a controversial development proposal on privately-owned portions of Chancellorsville battlefield in Spotsylvania County was resolved in a compromise that protects portions of the battlefield with development proceeding on sections less visible to the general public. A controversial Walmart Superstore proposed on privately-owned portions of Wilderness battlefield in Orange County is currently in litigation.

At the same time, demands for recreational opportunities are growing, Ms. Oakes notes.

“According to the 2007 Virginia Outdoors Plan produced by the Commonwealth, in just 10 years, demand for tent campsites, stream access, and hiking and horse trails will far outstrip supply in much of the region around Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park,” she said. “This growing demand for recreational facilities suggests ways that the region can diversify its economic base, broaden its appeal to tourists, while also making the region a better place to live.”

According to the new study, Linking Outdoor Recreation, Open Space, and History at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, the national park supports 450 jobs and contributes more than $9 million in labor income annually. That value can be expanded, however, if the surrounding communities offer additional recreational or related opportunities, notes the report.

It would be “great to have some sort of resort or park near the battlefields that offered camping and rustic cabins, and maybe other recreational opportunities," said Superintendent Smith. "That’s one way to leverage the park, keep visitors in the area longer, and maybe appeal to families with an interest in both history and recreation.”

Kathy Beard, the tourism director for Caroline County, agrees that offering opportunities that complement the history found at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania is important.

"It’s easy for visitors to experience 'history overload' here," she told NPCA. "In the park and outside it, outdoor recreation is a great direction for this area to develop. People will come to our area for a whole experience, not just 'another' history monument and cemetery."

With the commemoration of the Civil War's 150th anniversary beginning next year, now is a perfect time for communities surrounding the military park to leverage its appeal, the NPCA study said.

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, communities across the
larger region between Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Monticello in Virginia are
making plans to accommodate a dramatic increase in visitation. Gettysburg National
Military Park projects its visitation will more than double in 2013. The
nonprofit Journey Through Hallowed Ground is training 4,000 “Certified Tourism
Ambassadors” throughout this region to help guide visitors as they travel from
battlefield to battlefield.

With the 150th anniversaries of the battles memorialized by Fredericksburg and
Spotsylvania National Military Park approaching in 2012-2014, it is an apt time to
consider these battlefields in a larger context.

Comments

I like the tone of this post, the idea that historical parks are primarily for the recreation of nearby residents. I find this every time I visit one: by actual headcount, the people in these parks are locals jogging, biking, walking their dogs (if allowed). They're not folks like me who drive 1500 miles to view the history, it's folks nearby who need a place to take a run.

I am a bit surprised by the double-visitation projections by the NPS. I hadn't realized the 150th anniversary was coming up. Local communities should be trying to promote events marking that anniversary to promote tourism, hopefully the NPS can properly prepare for the load.