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Land Conservancy Group Works to Save US National Parks - 2003-05-29

Americans love their national parks, which range from historic sites like Independence Hall in Philadelphia to scenic wonders like the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There are 290 million people who visit the parks each year. But, some Americans do more than just visit the parks, they work to preserve these historic and scenic lands from encroaching development.

During the U.S. Civil War, Union and Confederate troops fought only one battle in Washington, D.C. President Abraham Lincoln looked on as Union soldiers defended the Capitol at Fort Stevens from Confederate troops. It was the only battle in American history where a sitting president was present. More than a century later, Fort Stevens was the site of another battle.

This time, the two sides were fighting over building houses on the historic land, which is surrounded by a national park in Washington's residential area.

"The surprising and oftentimes ignored fact is that not all of the national parks are totally protected," said Paul Pritchard, president of the National Park Trust, NPT, a private, non-profit land conservancy. "Within the boundaries of the national parks are millions of acres that are still privately owned."

The National Park Trust purchases endangered historic land and then transfers it to the government's National Park Service. In the case of the land near Fort Stevens, Mr. Pritchard says, National Park Trust was approached by the alumni of an historic African-American school that predated desegregation. The land borders the school, and when alumni heard developers planned to build 26 townhouses on it, they sought NPT's help.

"To put townhouses on this little piece of land would have obstructed the beautiful site. And it would be a real interruption of the historical importance of the area," said Pat Tyson, secretary of the alumni association. "When we found that out, we were introduced to the National Park Trust. We took them out to the site. They looked at it and saw the historical importance of it to the civil war era and to the African American cultural heritage. Then they decided that they would purchase it for the National Park Service."

Expanding National Parks by acquiring adjacent land is only one mission of National Park Trust. NPT also purchases land in the hopes of creating new parks.

Last September they donated 13 hectares of some of the last remaining prairie land in United States, which they acquired in 1994. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas is a nearly treeless landscape of grasses, some reaching three meters in height. It is the only National Park dedicated to the prairie ecosystem, and according to Louise Carlin of National Park Trust in Kansas City it remains as it did more than a century ago, when waves of pioneers made their way to and through this landscape.

"It is a limestone Victorian Farm, a three-story barn with several out buildings like an icehouse, a summer kitchen and underground tunnel," she said. "The rest of the acreage was for raising cattle."

The president of the National Park Trust, Paul Pritchard says the organization is following a tradition of preserving land for the public that was started long before NPT was founded 20 years ago. "In the past, this nation was blessed with the donations by people like the Rockefellers, and others, who literally brought and gave this country private national parks," he said. "The most wonderful story, by the way, was the school children at Tennessee and North Carolina, Virginia and others who gave us their pennies to Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park."

Mr. Pritchard says that although they aren't always successful, since it was founded in 1983, the National Parks Trust has acquired land for over 100 park projects, including Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home in Kentucky and 40 hectares of habitat for the endangered Florida panther.