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Civil War buffs couldn't see history for the trees

National parks clear trees from original battlefield 'sight lines,' delighting (and appalling) students of history.

Revealed: At the Battle of Gettysburg site, 576 acres of trees once hid the story of July 3, 1863.

Gaas/AP

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Even though he spends his time guiding tourists through the nooks and crannies of a Civil War-era house, retired librarian Harry Conay believes that nature can trump history.

He's watched in horror as the National Park Service has tried to make the Gettysburg National Military Park look more like it did on three July days in 1863. Officials are nearly a third of the way through cutting down 576 acres of trees that didn't exist back then.

Another 275 acres will be replanted with trees and orchards that disappeared over the past 15 decades. But it's not enough to please Mr. Conay, who says the battlefield's history is partly told through the healing of the earth. After all, the trees managed to thrive on land ravaged by a deadly struggle between two immense armies.

"During those 140 years, this has become something more than a battlefield lesson," Conay says from behind the gift-shop counter at the historic house where he serves as a guide.

But the trees continue to fall, despite a flurry of protests amid preparations for this month's opening of a $103 million visitors center and museum. And as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, at least one other battlefield is poised to restore history by chopping down countless trees.

To supporters, including park officials and amateur historians, the Gettysburg project makes perfect sense because it allows visitors to better understand the past. The enormous challenges facing generals and soldiers, they say, will finally be clear.

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