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Consumer Reports

A new battle at Gettysburg | (KRT) GETTYSBURG, Pa. — The struggle to save America's Civil War battlefields began not long after the last shots were fired in that bloody conflict almost 140 years ago.

With the streams of visitors came an army of motels, fast-food outlets and souvenir shops. By the 1980s, battlefields were squeezed by even larger developments - losing an acre every 10 minutes by one estimate.

But here at Gettysburg National Military Park, preservationists have taken the offensive, waging a campaign to take back the battlefield from commercial interests and restore it to its prewar condition.

At one time, there was a Stuckey's restaurant smack in the middle of Peach Orchard, where Brig. Gen. William Barksdale's troops broke through Union lines and made a run for Cemetery Ridge.

There was a motel atop Little Round Top, where Col. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment held their position against a fierce Confederate assault.

Utility wires divided the field where Pickett's Charge, the climactic event of the battle, took place when the Confederate Army made its final assault on the North.

Still more motels, billboards and other structures obscured other key sites of the three-day battle that left 51,000 soldiers dead, wounded or captured.

But now those modern intrusions are starting to disappear.

"Gettysburg is the leader in Park Service movement to restore battlefields to the way they looked before the battle," said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, a nonprofit group that has helped save 16,000 acres of Civil War battlefields nationwide. "Battlefields are a lot of things, and one of the things is an outdoor classroom. If you can re-create what happened in a preserved setting, it's far easier to learn."

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In Virginia, the crush of suburban sprawl in Petersburg, Manassas and Chancellorsville has eaten away at a number of the nation's most important Civil War battlefields. Similar threats have endangered battlefields in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and even New Mexico.

"Many other battlefields are just holding ground or slipping backward," said Lighthizer, whose group annually compiles a list of the 10 most endangered Civil War battlefield sites.

But here, the National Park Service, with the help of Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, has embarked on a rehabilitation plan that includes purchasing buildings or placing easement restrictions on dozens of properties within the 6,000-acre park.

What started slowly here a decade ago with the Friends group's effort to pay for the removal of utility poles has evolved into a broad-reaching, 20-year National Park Service management plan adopted in 1999. The park is not only demolishing buildings and restoring landscapes, but is also bringing back physical and natural elements of the battlefield - such as fences and dirt paths - lost or obscured by time.

The most visible rehabilitation project was the demolition in 2000 of the 300-foot battlefield observation tower adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery. Removal of the tower, which had been the source of controversy since it was erected in 1974, came to represent a turning point in battlefield preservation: trading the bird's-eye view for a clear sight line into how the battle unfolded.

Last year, the Friends helped negotiate a $930,000 deal that resulted in the purchase and demolition of the Home Sweet Home Motel, which for 40 years had occupied a slice of land where the left flank of the Confederate Army advanced during Pickett's Charge.

"This was a very critical piece of property; it (has opened) the view of the Union line of defense of Pickett's Charge," said Barbara Finfrock, chairwoman of the Friends group.

In 2005, the Park Service will demolish a structure now housing a Ford dealership, the last commercial enterprise within the park's boundaries. The heavily lit glass and chrome box surrounded by an asphalt car lot has for 30 years loomed over the site where the Union Army's 11th Corps was overwhelmed on July 1, 1863, the first day of the battle.

The Park Service purchased the six-acre parcel in 2001 for $1.2 million, and under the agreement, the dealership had four years to relocate. "It's an incredible visual intrusion on that part of battlefield, so it was extremely important for us to buy the property," park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon said.

At one time, even the Park Service built on a key battlefield site. As part of a larger effort in the 1960s to attract more visitors to national parks, the Park Service expanded the Gettysburg visitor center, built the Cyclorama gallery for the enormous circular painting depicting Pickett's Charge, and paved over a large portion of Cemetery Ridge, the heart of the Union defense.

The Park Service is trying to reverse that mistake; a new $95 million visitor center will open in 2006 on a site where no major fighting took place.

Not all of the park's plans are embraced by everyone.

The Cyclorama building, designed in 1962 by the world-famous architect Richard Neutra, is to be demolished in 2007 along with the visitor center. The historic painting will be relocated to the new visitor center, but fans of modern architecture, led by the architect's son, have protested the decision to destroy the building.

"Although the battlefield, the building and the painting are nationally significant, it was impossible to preserve all three, since the building was an intrusion on the battlefield," Lawhon said.

Other efforts - such as the clear-cutting of trees to restore battle-era sight lines - have come under fire by environmentalists.

"Trees obscured the view, so you could not understand the fields of observation, how troops maneuvered and fought," park superintendent John Latschar said.

When tree cutting on the southern section of the battlefield is completed in 2005, visitors will get a clear half-mile view from Warfield Ridge to Devil's Den, where Confederates launched their attack, he said. "One day visitors will be able to realize the drama of this attack as they do now at Pickett's Charge," Latschar said.

Latschar said it's unrealistic to think the entire battlefield landscape, even at Gettysburg, can be returned to its prewar state. He said the removal of the car dealership and motel are important victories, but like the Confederate Army, preservationists are not likely to advance much farther north.

At the edge of the motel property, where the crowded commercial strip begins, is where the left flank of Gen. James Longstreet's assault came, he said. "They went right through the parking lot between the McDonald's and the Hardee's. But it's not within the park's boundaries, so there's not much we can do."

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© 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services