Annie Snyder looks dolefully out at methodical surveyors and relentless earthmovers. They are swiftly preparing the way for thousands of people to shop where Robert E. Lee's headquarters once stood and his troops readied for a key assault during the important second Civil War struggle for Manassas. ``The big fight out here,'' she says quietly, ``has always been between people who see land as a resource, as I do, and people who see land as a commodity.''
Mrs. Snyder, a longtime civic activist, isn't always so soft-spoken. She is the feisty leader of conservationists who are in their fiercest struggle in two decades over a historic site. In Congress and the courts, they are trying to turn back the shopping center, just as General Lee's troops more than 125 years ago thwarted Union forces here. Snyder and her Save the Battlefield Coalition say a huge shopping center, added traffic, and a new superhighway are wholly incompatible with the abutting historic Manassas battlefield park.
This local issue has become a national problem, as Civil War buffs, preservationists, and local citizens have banded together to try to preserve a corner of America's heritage.
The root of the threat to Manassas and other Civil War battlefields is America's urban sprawl. Across the United States, as at Manassas, cities ooze slowly outward into the countryside, heedless of long-rural historic sites. With this spread come pressures on the little communities next to historic parklands to become more suburban and develop economically valuable land.
Experts say the present Manassas battle will likely be a prologue for the future of several other Civil War battlefields - and, indeed, the future of other American national parks. ``Society and human culture are encroaching onto every parkland'' in the 343-unit system of US national parks, says Destry Jarvis, vice-president of the National Parks and Conservation Association.
Congress ``has neglected to give the National Park Service authority to deal with problems that arise outside the borders'' of individual parks, such as development, Mr. Jarvis says. These problems, he says, now ``are legion and growing.''
At a hearing today before the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Land experts will discuss the development threat to the Manassas National Battlefield Park. The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Bruce Vento (D) of Minnesota, is considering legislation to strengthen the hand of the Park Service so it can obtain more land at threatened sites, and, in extreme cases, can swiftly take control of imminently threatened sites and stop development.
Three Civil War battlefields are among America's 11 most endangered historic sites, says the National Trust for Historic Preservation in a new assessment to be released later today. They are Manassas; Antietam, Md.; and Cedar Creek, near Middletown, Va.
The seeds of the problem in the three Civil War parks and many others in the National Park Service system, National Park Service historian Edwin Bearss says, were planted nearly 100 years ago. After Congress had purchased land for America's first four national Civil War battlefield parks in the 1890s, it paused to consider the financial ramifications. Three - Chickamauga in Georgia, Shiloh in Tennessee, and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania - had been relatively expensive for those days: Congress had purchased a considerable amount of land.
The fourth case was different - and cheaper. It was Antietam, the Maryland site of the Civil War's bloodiest one-day battle, where Union troops on Sept. 17, 1862, at great human cost parried Lee's first thrust into the North. To conserve money, Congress primarily bought land along roadways, plus a small central amount of acreage.
Congress presumed that since this community was far from any city, the remaining, privately owned, land would be farmed forever, and it was not necessary to spend additional federal funds to purchase it. From 1899 to 1940, Mr. Bearss says, the federal government purchased national parks on this flawed, penny-wise and pound-foolish principle.
Now, however, development is threatening to encroach on Antietam and other once-rural parks. About a mile from the core of the Antietam battlefield a land parcel was recently sold for the development of a small shopping center.
But friends of Antietam are fighting back. History buffs have organized into the Save Historic Antietam Foundation. Maryland Gov. William Schaefer and local government officials are studying the area to decide, as Bearss puts it, ``where you can have development that will not intrude on the historic scene.''
Similar threat of development exists at the site of the October 1864 battle of Cedar Creek. There, as at Antietam, a civic organization has recently been formed. Its purpose is to thwart development by buying from private owners undeveloped land that was important to the battle.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation now owns 100 acres around Belle Grove, the late-18th-century manor house about which was fought the battle that ended Confederate military power in the northern Shenandoah Valley.
The most immediate development threat is to a 150-acre parcel abutting Belle Grove. On this land developers propose building several industrial parks.
Whatever happens at Manassas, Antietam, and Cedar Creek, obviously America cannot preserve all the undeveloped land on which historic events occurred.
``I think the ideal way,'' says Bearss, ``is the way they're talking in Antietam. ... They've got to get the county, the state, and the feds involved to make a study. To realize there are certain parts so important to the history of our country that, as the [US] Supreme Court said in 1896, there is an inherent power on the part of our government to buy certain lands that are important in the history of our country....
``Then there should be ... land around it in which people of good will'' will agree to development, ``but it has to be compatible development.''
As what's occurring at Manassas shows, the task won't be easy - in part, Snyder says, because ``we have a big conflict here ... between our long-held property rights ... and the rights of people to not just historic sites, but the right to maintain and protect our resources.''
Yet, says Ian Spatz of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, ``we don't have a way to save these places where [local] people with control over them don't care about saving them, whereas there is a large constituency across the US that favors saving them. That is where the system has broken down.''
Mr. Spatz favors ``strong new federal legislation'' that would ``encourage or force'' a state and federal partnership to evaluate historic and other park resources. And that would, on exceptional occasions, provide ``extraordinary power'' to the National Park Service to purchase land quickly so as to abruptly stop development.
Meanwhile, Spatz says, pointing to Manassas, ``while we're all trying to find some solution to this thing, the bulldozers are rolling. The federal government shouldn't be so powerless.''