Reader Commentary: Foundation responsible for protecting battlefield

By W. Denman Zirkle

In his reader commentary (Northern Virginia Daily, July 20), Chris Fordney found it “astonishing” to hear I said “everyone agrees” with the decision of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation to close several miles of mountain biking trails at the Third Winchester battlefield.

Fordney is correct. Some mountain bike enthusiasts were not included in “everyone.”

Fordney is also correct that, effective Jan. 1, the off-trail paths at Third Winchester will be closed to mountain bikes. He is incorrect in saying that an outstanding fitness and recreational resource will be blocked off. The gravel trails that were planned and built by the Civil War Trust almost 10 years ago for pedestrian and bicycle use will remain open to cyclists. And additional trails are on the drawing board in less sensitive areas of the property north of Redbud Road.

I was, however, disappointed to read in his commentary misinformation and confusing facts to support his assessment that the foundation is “messing up a good thing” by closing off-trail paths to mountain bikes.

The decision to close the off-trail paths to mountain bikes follows two years of study by historians, Civil War students and others who have pointed to the damage inflicted by mountain bikes on historic battlefield resources at Third Winchester. It would be irresponsible for an organization dedicated to protecting and interpreting battlefields to continue to accept this situation. While it is true that some of these paths existed prior to purchase of the property by the Civil War Trust in 1996, this use in the past does not justify its continuation into the future.

In 2010, Civil War Trust, the foundation and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources embarked on a study of the battlefield, its historic significance, topographical features, and appropriate uses for the future. This study was concluded at the end of last year. During the study, a steering committee of involved local professionals was formed to offer their opinions on appropriate uses for the battlefield. The findings of the study are clear about the damage that has been caused by years of use by mountain bikes on randomly formed paths through the most sensitive parts of the battlefield. The study further calls for mountain bike use to cease on these off-trail paths.

In addition to returning the battle area south of Redbud Run gradually to its topography during the 1864 battle, the study also suggests community recreational, educational, and Scouting uses, among others, for the less sensitive portion of the battlefield north of Redbud Run. The foundation is in discussions with public and private partners who wish to work toward establishing community resources on this property that will benefit the citizens of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke Counties, and hikers, cyclists, students, teachers and Scouts who plan to use these areas.

Contrary to Fordney’s commentary, we have worked, and are continuing to work, with the Frederick County Public Schools to assure the continued use of the battlefield by students and teachers, including the cross-country team from Millbrook High School.

Had Fordney asked, we would have been glad to share this study, our plans, and our work to date, on the entire Third Winchester project, including the plans to add more trails north of Redbud Run. It’s an exciting project that offers something for almost everyone – except mountain bikers using off-trail paths.

Our responsibility is to protect this battlefield, even at a relative late date in its 149-year history. We are not responsible for what happened here 100, or even five years ago. But we can begin now to treat this hallowed ground with respect, interpret it for visitors, and return it to its 1864 presence. Rather than “messing up” the battlefield, we are honoring a place where over 5,000 Federal and 3,500 Confederate troops where killed, lost, or wounded in one bloody afternoon. Nothing less is due the memory of these fallen heroes.

W. Denman Zirkle is executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.