The park advisory commission for Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park is asking the National Park Service to call a time-out on merging with the much-larger Shenandoah National Park.
Gay Vietzke, deputy director of the park service’s Northeast Region, attended the commission’s meeting Thursday at the Strasburg Town Hall. There, she met strong opposition to the decision to hire a superintendent overseeing both parks.
“The decision was made [to merge the two national parks], but I think this feedback is significant, and I will bring it back to the organization,” she said during a break in the meeting.
The proposal involved Shenandoah National Park also getting a deputy superintendent and Cedar Creek and Belle Grove getting a site manager, Vietzke said. It came as the superintendents of both parks, Diann Jacox at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove, and Shenandoah’s Martha Bogle, are retiring.
During the meeting, Vietzke addressed commissioners’ concerns.
“We’re absolutely committed to making this a successful national park,” she said.
The plan was to “enhance and augment and increase Cedar Creek and Belle Grove’s capacity,” Vietzke said.
The political reality is that there isn’t additional funding coming from traditional appropriation sources, she said.
“(The thinking) in redefining the senior superintendent in this area as the superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park and then giving you an on-the-ground site manager based here whose everyday job was to augment the leadership vision, and giving you the back up of 250 or so employees that are part of Shenandoah was a benefit,” Vietzke said.
“It was to augment capacity here…but, I recognize that it was perceived differently here. We heard loud and clear that you’re looking for leadership and that the success of this park is dependent on partnership and collaboration.”
Cedar Creek and Belle Grove became a park 10 years ago, and involves partnerships among the park service, Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, Belle Grove Inc., the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Shenandoah County. It is spread across parts of Shenandoah, Warren and Frederick counties.
Public Cold to Funding Options
Stan Hirschberg, representing the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, was the first to speak out against the merger at the meeting.
“I think we’re going to be in a subservient position to Shenandoah National Park,” he said. “I think we’re much smaller and we’re going to get what’s left over. I don’t think any one of us is in favor of this. I think it’s a step backwards.”
The National Trust for Historical Preservation’s Rob Nieweg said the park advisory commission was kept in the dark.
“This federal advisory commission exists to advise the park service, and we weren’t given an opportunity to do that,” he said. “It’s our understanding it’s done for cost savings. If cost savings is a concern, then let’s have a discussion amongst all the partners that are on this panel to find ways that save money here without undermining the progress that’s already been made … We don’t support the change and we will continue to oppose it.”
Area residents are the grandchildren of people whose land was seized to create Shenandoah National Park, landowner Mary Bowser said.
“I can tell you that the perception in the valley is not good when they talk about Shenandoah National Park and how it acquired its land,” she said. “The perception will be that we were taken over by Shenandoah National Park. In a sense, we would be confiscated by the larger park, and it will set us backward.”
Cedar Creek and Belle Grove is still in its early stages, and not only is it a partnership park, it is about 3,500 acres — 90 of which are directly owned by the park service — compared to Shenandoah’s 200,000 acres, said Patrick Farris, who is the commission’s chairman and the executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.
“They’re extremely different from that perspective,” he said. “We need people who own this land here to feel that it would be a potential for them to make this land available to this national park that they have that immediate connection, that they’re not simply putting land into a larger bucket.”
The proposal appears to be a “pretty done deal,” Hirschberg said.
“And, I think we were just sort of blindsided by it all,” he said. “Is this just being done to save money?”
Vietzke said it wasn’t.
“Well, then, I don’t see any advantage to us,” Hirschberg responded.
The commission passed a resolution to ask the park service to put the decision on hold so the commission can again meet and provide feedback to the service.
Note: Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park in Northern Virginia commemorates a decisive Civil War battle fought Oct. 19, 1864, and protects a plantation house once occupied by James Madison’s sister.