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Byrd to lead charge for park expansion

August 22, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Calling Harpers Ferry National Historical Park "one of West Virginia's jewels," U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd on Thursday announced plans to introduce legislation next month that would allow the park to expand by 1,240 acres.

The 1,240 acres includes 368 acres of private land in the School House Ridge area, a historically significant area that park supporters have been working to protect, said park Superintendent Donald Campbell and others supporting the effort.

School House Ridge, an area that extends outward from U.S. 340 west of the park, is where Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson oversaw the capture of 12,500 Union troops during the Civil War in 1862, the largest capture in the conflict.

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The remaining land in the proposed expansion area includes a tract of federal land about 21/2 miles southwest of Harpers Ferry. That land was to be the site of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center before officials decided to build the facility along Shepherd Grade Road near Shepherdstown, W.Va.

The proposed expansion area also takes in 375 acres in the Loudoun Heights area that was donated to the park several years ago by a Silver Spring, Md., couple.

Although that property and some land in the School House Ridge area have been set aside for the park, the areas could not be added to the park because it has reached its maximum allowable size of 2,505 acres.

Byrd's proposal would allow all of the areas to be added to the park.

Although a large group of park supporters have been pushing for the expansion, Byrd, D-W.Va., directed the National Park Service to conduct an outreach program that involved measuring public support of the proposal.

A questionnaire was distributed by park officials asking local residents what they thought about the expansion.

The park service received 3,495 responses, and 3,280 of them, or about 94 percent, said they supported a broad expansion of the park, Byrd's office said.

"Harpers Ferry has been the backdrop of many key events in the history of America, from the explorations of Lewis and Clark to the Civil War to the growth of the Industrial Age. It is only right to preserve and protect this history for generations to come," Byrd said in a statement Thursday.

Byrd said he has drafted legislation that he plans to introduce when Congress reconvenes next month.

It is hoped the Senate will act on the proposal with "relative speed" and send the proposal to the House of Representatives, said Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito visited the park last week and heard comments from park supporters who emphasized the need to protect historical areas under the expansion.

Capito, R-W.Va., supported the effort and told those in attendance they could "count me in your corner."

Capito said by telephone Thursday she and Byrd officials probably will meet to determine strategy for pursuing the park expansion.

It may be determined that the best way to proceed is to introduce a "mirror bill" of Byrd's proposal in the House so the process can begin there at the same time, Capito said.

Park supporters say some of the land in the proposed expansion area is privately owned and is under pressure to be developed for residential uses.

Campbell declined to speculate on whether private landowners might hold out on any efforts to bring the private land into the park.

"I'm just very confident, in one way or another, this land will be preserved," said Campbell, who praised Byrd's step forward on the expansion proposal.

"I think it bodes well for Jefferson County, West Virginia and the nation," Campbell said.

Paul Rosa, executive director of the Harpers Ferry Conservancy, called Byrd's move "extraordinary good news."

If Congress passes the park expansion, an appropriations bill would have to be crafted to set aside money to purchase properties, Campbell said.

Campbell declined to say how much money might be needed for the land purchases.

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