Development near park brings controversy

Valley Forge is the story of the six-month encampment of the Continental Army of the newly formed United States under the command of Gen. George Washington, a few miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Although no battle was fought there from Dec. 19, 1777, to June 19, 1778, a struggle against the elements and low morale was overcome on this sacred ground.

Today, another struggle continues more than 78 acres of private land that is located within the park boundaries of Valley Forge National Historic Park in an area known as Lower Providence Township.

About one-third of Valley Forge consists of tall grass meadows. The Pawling Farm serves as a habitat for many native  birds such as the eastern meadow- lark and the kill deer (Photo courtesy of the American Revolution Center).

The issue in Valley Forge begins with the broken partnership between the American Revolution Center (ARC) and the National Park Service at Valley Forge. The ARC is a private organization that hopes, through the construction of a museum, to create a home for the truly priceless artifacts that describe our nation’s history.

The proposed 130,000-square feet museum will be the first of its kind dedicated to interpreting, honoring and celebrating the complete story of the entire American Revolution. The lives of the gender and ethnically diverse people who created the United States will be explored using the center’s extraordinary collection of objects from the period of the American Revolution.

“Our mission is to engage and inform the public in the understanding of the magnificent revolution and its ongoing legacy,” Zeeann Mason, senior vice president of the American Revolution Center, said.

The ARC and the park worked as partners for a long time to try to get the museum built on federal land in conjunction with the Visitor’s Center, but then the ARC decided to end the partnership.

“The bottom line is that the federal government needs to be a majority partner and, as an organization with a mission and mandate, we were requiring an equal partnership,” Mason said. “The board has come to the conclusion that our mission and mandate is better served on the private land that we have purchased.”

The private land purchased as a result of the broken partnership is known as the Pawling Farm and is located on Perkiomen Peninsula across the Schuylkill River on the north side of the park.

The 78 acres of private land is only a portion of the 500 acre Pawling farm site, and three percent of the 3,600 acres owned by the park. The Perkiomen Peninsula itself represents about 25 percent of the park and is a mix of habitats including an open meadow, riparian and upland forest, wetlands and extensive vernal ponds.

The American Revolution Center has offered to spend $5 million to build a bridge that will connect the north and south side of the Valley Forge National Historic Park. This proposition would offer visitors the opportunity to visit the north side of the park without having to exit the park and travel 10 minutes by car to get to the other side.

“We had been a legislative partner for 10 years and we worked in good faith to try to come to acceptable terms to put the museum on federal land and we are very proud of the work we did,” Mason explained. “When we were a private partnership we raised a million dollars to enhance programming and support historic restoration. We have put our money where our mouth is.”

The American Revolution Center is in the process of also establishing more than just a museum. It will offer lodging for scholars and for the general public in a 90-room facility with an educational conference center.

“Our first priority is to engage a large public of about 750,000 people to the site and the second priority is we want to provide a setting for scholars that will ultimately lead us further down the path of understanding,” Mason said.

NPS and Valley Forge NHP officials do not entirely have a problem with the idea of a museum, but they do have a problem with the ARC’s proposal for an educational conference center and the 90-room lodging facility to be built on that particular land.

“The museum is hardly the first of its kind,” Deirdre Gibson, chief of Planning and Resource Management for Valley Forge NHP, said. “There are scores of museums up and down the East Coast dedicated to the American Revolution and the notion that this is the first is a little delusional.”

Those who oppose construction on Pawling Farm point to the importance of the land as a historically significant area during the time of Gen. Washington and the Continental Army encampment.

“A museum and complex can be built anywhere,” Gibson said. “From the park’s point of view, protecting this historic site is far more important than anything we could do in the 21st century; it can be anywhere. Why destroy a historic site?”

Valley Forge National Historical Park was designated by law in 1976 to preserve the lands on which the 1777-78 Continental Army encampment took place and to interpret that history for the benefit of the public. In 1979-80, the U.S. Congress expanded the park’s boundaries to include the north side of the park with the goal of extending the reach of historical preservation. This expansion also offers more space for recreation.

Mike Caldwell, superintendent of Valley Forge NHP, notes in a letter that the land known as the Perkiomen Peninsula and particularly the Pawling Farm played an essential role in the Valley Forge winter encampment of 1777-78.

“It provided strategic protection for the camp; it was the site of the newly organized Commissary function that saved the Continental Army from starvation; and it was the ultimate site of the encampment itself before the army marched on to victory at Monmouth,” he wrote.

“Once Upon A Nation” storytellers  educate as they share stories of the encampment in the Revolutionary War (Photo by Bill Moses, courtesy of the National Park Service).

However, the American Revolution Center did a recent archeological study of its own and found no evidence of such a commissary that provided food for the more than 10,000 troops.

The executive summary of the first phase of the study report, prepared by John Milner Associates, states that testing methodologies that included metal detecting were undertaken on seven days during the field investigations with over 340 hours of detecting completed. Shovel tests were also placed at 45-foot intervals throughout the 57 acres of ground within the tested area.

The test concluded that any military related artifacts or any indications of structures such as barns, warehouses, and storehouses which may have supported the existence of a commissary within in the project area all seem to point to a different location other than the ARC property for the Commissary.

Thomas Fleming author of the 2005 book Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge has spent 45 years in the effort to bring to life the war for independence to the American people. He has also contributed to the board of scholars in offering the historical story behind the Revolutionary War for the museum and wants people to stop believing such myths.

“They turned up virtually no evidence of the debris that would typify an 18th century commissary and found barely a dozen 18th century objects,” Fleming said. “Nor is there any evidence that this was the site of the departure of 10,000 troops when they marched out to the battle of Monmouth on June 10.”

Thomas points out that no one knows for sure where this commissary was ultimately located.

For now, the debate continues as both sides discuss the historical significance of a piece of land. Overall, the Lower Providence Township with a population of 24,000 is largely supportive of the museum says Township Manager Joe Dunbar.

“When you have five people and the NPCA who are officially involved in the appeal out of a total 24,000 people one would surmise that the overall populous don’t reject the proposed plan,” Dunbar explained.

According to township manager Joe Dunbar, the economic impact of this $150 million museum can be upwards of $27 million on the local economy as the town is anticipating more than 700,000-plus visitors a year. The ARC actually has the figure at a number close to 47 million and according to survey polls conducted by the ARC in local zip codes, 81 percent of the people are for construction.

“I think people had problems with the over-commercialization factor of building a McDonald’s and banks on the land, but that just simply isn’t the case,” Dunbar said.

The ordinance, approved on Sept. 7, 2007, requires for the ARC to leave a minimum of 75 percent of the purchased land as open space. In fact, the center has pledged to leave 80 percent of the land as open space in its pledge to make the museum and its accompanying structures as much apart of the landscape as possible.

Preliminary plans will be presented on May 28, 2008, by the local township planning commission. The board of supervisors will ultimately vote on the preliminary land development plans and whether to begin construction.

Despite the controversy surrounding the museum, an example of a successful public and private partnership can be seen within Valley Forge National Park. The Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, an active Episcopal Church, is located within the park’s boundaries on private grounds where Gen. Washington wintered with his troops in the dark year of 1777 during the American Revolution.

Valley Forge contains a complete educational and recreational experience including living history interpreters.  Each interpreter is charged with developing a historical character / persona appropriate for this location and time period (Photo by Bill Moses, courtesy of the National Park Service).

Through a partnership with the National Park Service the gothic chapel is left open for visitors. The park service offers educational tours and programming as long as the church continues to keep their doors open for outside visitors.

Cinda Waldbuesser, Pennsylvania program manager of the NPCA, points to nearby Gettysburg National Military Park as an example of a private and public partnership gone right and what the American Revolution Center could have had with Valley Forge.

Gettysburg National Military Park tells the story of the largest battle of the American Civil War fought in 1863. Often referred to as the turning point of the war, with more than 51,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured or missing.

The Gettysburg Foundation, in partnership with the National Park Service at Gettysburg, is working to restore, preserve and enhance the consecrated ground of America’s most revered Civil War battlefield through the addition of a new $103 million museum and visitor center. The museum, which opened in April 2008, showcases an extensive collection of artifacts and archival materials.

The partnership mandates that the Gettysburg foundation donate the land and museum building to the NPS debt free in 20 years.

“At the heart of that partnership was the best interest of Gettysburg National Park,” Katie Lawhon, public affairs officer at Gettysburg, said. “The Gettysburg foundation has purchased land surrounding he museum to ensure that it is protected and to preserve the historical integrity of the park.”

According to the National Parks Conservation Association report “Americas Heritage for Sale” Gettysburg National Park has one out of every five acres inside the parks congressionally designated boundary not owned by the NPS, making the land subject to private development.

Adams County, where Gettysburg is located is the fourth fastest growing county in Pennsylvania.

This is a sketch from the American Revolution Center shows the proposed museum. ARC expects to leave up to 80 percent of the land as open space and continue its vision of making the museum apart of the landscape (Photo courtesy of the American Revolution Center).

“In Gettysburg, we have a great need to protect land in and have received no funding from the government for land acquisition since the year 2001,” Lawhon, said.

The NPCA’s report specifically mentions the need to purchase 119 acres at a price of $3.6 million on land that includes battle era structures and cultural landscapes, and the site of a battlefield hospital.

“We did get $5.9 million in 2001, which is a relatively large amount we have long since spent it all and we have had to pass up on opportunities to buy historically significant lands inside our boundaries that have come and gone on the real estate market.”

Valley Forge National Historical Park is at the heart of the battle between the National Park System, and the significant and growing number of parks who face some threat to wildlife habitat or the preservation of cultural treasures because of development on privately owned land within national park boundaries.

In the April 2008 report released by the National Parks Conservation Association, “Americas Heritage For Sale,” highlights the importance of increased annual government appropriation for the Park Service towards land acquisitions of privately owned land within the boundaries of our parks.

At the center of the issue is adequate funding made available to the National Park Service through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Established by Congress in September 1964, the purpose of the LWCF was to “conserve, develop, and utilize outdoor resources for the “benefit and enjoyment of the American People.”

According to the report, the fund receives $900 million per year-primarily from revenue generated from oil and gas leasing of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS)-and Congress can provide up to that amount annually for a combination of a federal acquisition program and a state LWCF matching grant program for outdoor recreation needs.

“A lack of funding is a very big issue,” Cinda Waldbuesser, Pennsylvania program manager for the NPCA, said. “As we are moving towards 2016, we have committed to have the national parks in the best condition they can be by their 100th birthday.”

Unfortunately, the LWCF funding for National Park Service has decreased by more than 100 million dollars in the past 10 years. The NPCA looks to increase land acquisition funding from $44 million in 2008 to $100 million by 2009 as they move to ultimately buy out the 1.8 million acres of park in holdings slated for purchase by 2016.

National Park Service map showing Valley Forge National Historical Park preliminary development plans (Map courtesy of the National Park Service).


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