More than 150 years after the famous Battle of the Crater, Petersburg National Battlefield is experiencing a new fight to preserve its history for future generations. Like most of our national park sites across the country, Petersburg faces growing maintenance and repair needs, compounded by aging facilities, inconsistent congressional funding and increased visitation.
While the staff at Petersburg National Battlefield does a tremendous job ensuring the site is ready for visitors each day, additional, dedicated funding from Congress is essential to fix major repairs that require long-term planning over several years.
Deemed by author and historian Wallace Stegner as “absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst,” national parks continue to unite Americans from both sides of the aisle. Recent polling commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts indicates that 82 percent of Americans support a proposal before Congress that would dedicate funding to pay for maintenance and repairs at national parks. I would wager few things in America could get that type of support in this current political environment.
The Petersburg Battlefields Foundation strives to inspire and educate the public about the Petersburg Campaign of the Civil War. Despite a plethora of Civil War battles across the commonwealth, the Petersburg Campaign was vital to the eventual fall of Richmond and soon after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Our nation’s conflicted and unique history largely came to a head during this time and remains an important historical moment commemorated at the battlefield.
During the Petersburg Campaign, the largest African American military force assembled during the war participated in six major engagements, in the process earning 15 Medals of Honor for their heroics. Securing dedicated maintenance funding will allow parks like Petersburg to continue sharing this important history and allow visitors to experience firsthand where the intense, nearly 10 month-long struggle took place.
Unlike many other parks that face mostly non-historic maintenance needs, most of the maintenance and repairs at Petersburg National Battlefield relate to maintaining cultural landscapes, educational media buildings and interpretive trails. Passing the Restore our Parks Act (S. 500) and the Restore our Parks and Public Lands Act (H.R. 1225) would go a long way to addressing the current requests for maintenance at the park.
Both companion bills would provide dedicated funding for National Park System infrastructure repairs. Congressional representatives from Virginia recognize this need, with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner leading the way as a co-sponsor on the Senate version of the bill. Despite voices like Warner and the support of seven other members from Virginia’s delegation, it is disappointing that while more than 340 members of Congress support the two pieces of legislation, congressional leadership has not brought this important issue to the floor for substantial discussion and debate.
The time to act is now. With each passing day, deferred maintenance needs continue to grow. Fixing the problem would alleviate the demand placed on park staff and visitors, as more buildings, roads, trails and other historic features face the possibility of closing.
Other national park sites in Virginia like the Blue Ridge Parkway need funding to ensure safe travel for drivers, and visitors to Shenandoah National Park expect consistent trail maintenance and improvement from year to year. I applaud the members of Congress from Virginia who have taken the time to sign on and support this important bipartisan effort.
I encourage them to continue beating the drum so leaders in both the House and the Senate have no choice but to take up and pass this legislation before the end of this Congress. Petersburg National Battlefield needs some relief as it prepares to teach the next generation of visitors about this important chapter of American history.