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Mark Cheathem: We must fight to protect our historic national parks

Mark Cheathem • Updated Apr 22, 2017 at 1:00 PM

Our Civil War battlefields serve as a vital historical link between the current generation and a nation that was divided more than a century and a half ago. It also helps us to understand and learn from the nearly 3 million men who fought and the about 750,000 men who lost their lives during the war. 

The National Parks Service is the key federal agency that helps to preserve several of these battlefields. However, irregular funding from Congress has allowed many of these sites to fall into disrepair. The NPS currently faces more than $12 billion in needed infrastructure repairs, including trails, roads, bridges and monuments. 

Maintenance delays negatively affect the visitor experience at all national parks but especially at the military parks. Unfixed repairs can lead to a lack of access, which makes it difficult for teachers and historians, myself included, to interpret these historical events.

One important local example is the Stones River National Military Park and Cemetery in Rutherford County. This site commemorates the Battle of Stones River, fought from Dec. 31, 1862, to Jan. 2, 1863, near Murfreesboro. In one of the bloodiest encounters of the war, the clash between Union and Confederate forces resulted in nearly 24,000 casualties. Of the Union dead, about 6,100 found their final resting place at Stones River Cemetery.

This hallowed ground, however, needs repairs totaling more than $2.5 million. As a history professor who researches and teaches the Civil War, I have taken students to visit Stones River on several occasions. Observing the landscape as a park ranger explains troop movements and military strategy is an experience that imprints itself on their minds in ways that a book or lecture cannot.

The National Park Legacy Act of 2017 gives Congress the opportunity to address these critical needs. If passed, it would create the dedicated Legacy Restoration Fund to provide for the most critically needed projects. Money would be allocated to the fund annually, so that it could be drawn on for future needs. It also would provide for public-private matching partnerships.

National park sites such as the Stones River Battlefield and Cemetery have a large economic impact on our local communities. According to the NPS, the 12 national parks in Tennessee have more than $750 million in economic impact, creating more 9,000 jobs. System-wide, national parks have a $32 billion economic impact.

Repairing our national parks is a win-win for Congress. It means that we not only preserve our history and heritage, but we also protect a major economic driver for communities in Tennessee and across the United States. These resources belong to all Americans, and it is up to Congress to find a way to make certain they will be available for generations to come. That is why I am asking Tennessee’s congressional delegation to support the National Park Legacy Act. 

Mark R. Cheathem is a professor of history at Cumberland University.

 

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