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Immediate Development Threat Places Wilderness as One of Nations Top 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites

Immediate Development Threat Places Wilderness as One of Nations Top 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites

May 1, 2024

(Orange County, Virginia) — Wilderness Battlefield, site of a pivotal clash that marked a turning point in the Civil War, was named one of the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places due to the threat of a massive data center development that would irrevocably destroy the historic landscapes fundamental to maintaining the area as a vital educational resource and treasured hallowed ground. 

Wilderness Battlefield anchors Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Battlefields National Military Park in Orange County, Va., welcoming 500,000 heritage tourists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts a year to its forested trails. In making the designation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) noted only a fraction of the historically significant battlefield landscape is federally protected, leaving it vulnerable to the impact of rampant development. Of particular concern is the recent rezoning of adjacent rural land for the Wilderness Crossing project, an unprecedented local expansion of residential, commercial and industrial development, as well as millions of square feet of data centers and their associated noise pollution and transmission lines. 

A broad coalition has formed to build legal and public pressure on Orange County officials to reconsider and educate the public on what is at stake. Partners in the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition include the American Battlefield Trust, Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, Cedar Mountain Battlefield Foundation, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, Friends of Wilderness BattlefieldHistoric GermannaJourney Through Hallowed Ground, National Parks Conservation Association, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Piedmont Environmental Council and Preservation Virginia.

“We simply cannot allow this potentially catastrophic impact to occur when better planning and thoughtful consideration could preserve such a vital and irreplaceable historic site,” said David Duncan, president of the American Battlefield Trust, which along with Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield and neighboring landowners, have filed a lawsuit challenging the rezoning. “We are not against development and know progress and preservation need not be mutually exclusive. We are grateful to the National Trust for drawing attention to the danger.” 

“The threat of Wilderness Crossing ripples region-wide and statewide, as it is likely to draw yet more electrical generation and transmission infrastructure to the Piedmont area, particularly the historic-site-rich Route 3 corridor,” said Piedmont Environmental Council President Chris Miller. “This designation for the Wilderness Battlefield Area epitomizes the threats to historic, scenic and cultural resources that result from the proliferation of data centers and associated energy infrastructure.”

The Battle of the Wilderness was fought May 5-7, 1864, and marked the first stage of a major Union offensive toward the Confederate capital of Richmond ordered by the newly named Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant. Despite his army suffering horrific casualties — nearly 18,000 soldiers killed, wounded or captured in 48 hours — Grant wrote to President Lincoln, “I intend to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

“In response, Lincoln told Grant, ‘Hold on with a bulldog’s grip,’ and that is precisely the spirit we carry today. The preservation and conservation community remains resolute in our fight to protect the historic landscapes of the Wilderness,” said  Bill Sellers, president of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area, which spearheaded the competitive application process. 

The Wilderness Battlefield is one of several historic sites imperiled by the unchecked explosion of data center development in Virginia, where the concentration of data centers is three times denser than anywhere else in the world. Another proposal adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield Park would convert more than 2,100 acres of farmland into a corridor of 40 data centers, the largest such complex on the planet. Further projects poised to mar historic landscapes are advancing in Caroline, Culpeper, Henrico, Prince William and Surry Counties. The fate of such projects is committed to local officials, as there currently exists no federal or state oversight on the siting and building of these mega warehouses, even when such a facility would jeopardize cultural, natural or historic resources of national significance. 

“The explosion of data center development across the Commonwealth is a grave concern for the preservation and public history community,” said Elizabeth Kostelny, chief executive officer of Preservation Virginia. “We have spent years sounding the alarm on this broadly impactful issue and are grateful for the 11 Most designation that will highlight it on the national stage.” 

At the Wilderness, some protected lands, including many areas witnessing the most intense combat, are administered by the National Park Service, while the American Battlefield Trust, Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield and the Commonwealth of Virginia also own or steward additional portions of the battlefield. Even these holdings do not cover the full extent of the historic landscape and large areas once used for encampments, entrenchments, hospitals, burial sites, military headquarters and troop movements remain privately owned and vulnerable to development. 

In a single vote last April, the Orange County Board of Supervisors rezoned more than 2,600 acres for the massive Wilderness Crossing development at the gateway to the battlefield and partly inside its footprint. This includes by-right entitlement to blanket 732 acres in data centers without any cap on density, a 5-million-square-foot ceiling having been removed at the last minute. The project will also include 500,000 square feet of commercial development and industrial zones, plus 5,000 new dwelling units, which would have an overwhelming impact in a rural county of only 16,000 households. Moreover, proceeding with this massive, unchecked development will almost certainly necessitate the implementation of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s long-stagnant proposal of a major realignment of Route 20 through the historic landscape.

Three of the partners in the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition (American Battlefield Trust, Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and Friends of Wilderness Battlefield) have filed a lawsuit over the April 2023 rezoning, citing multiple failures to comply with county ordinances and Virginia law and lack of consideration of the impact on historic, natural or cultural resources. A second successful lawsuit filed by the Piedmont Environmental Council showed county officials violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act with non-disclosure agreements, redacted communications and other documents related to dealings with Amazon on the project. 

“We recognize the need for development and the role data centers play in our everyday lives. But this does not need to come at the expense of historic resources,” said Central Virginia Battlefields Trust President Tom Van Winkle. 

There is precedent for reconsideration of data centers. Recently, facing strong public opposition, an approved Amazon data center development in King George County was renegotiated by the Board of Supervisors.

This is the second time the Wilderness Battlefield has been named to the 11 Most Endangered List. In 2010, it faced a different threat: construction of a Walmart Superstore. Ultimately, a win-win solution was found, with Walmart building at a different site several miles away and donating the original site to the Commonwealth of Virginia. In the aftermath, stakeholders — including the owners of the land now proposed for development — created the Wilderness Battlefield Gateway Plan outlining a compatible development vision for the area. It was a model for community engagement and collaborative planning, with elements of the plan officially adopted by the County. However, both the process and recommendations were largely ignored by the County this time around. 

The inclusion on the current list was announced immediately before the 160th anniversary commemoration of the battle. 

Since 1988, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has produced its list of 11 places in grave danger of destruction or irreparable harm. During that time, the Trust has identified more than 350 sites, and its efforts have helped galvanize support to protect nearly all of them.

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