Manassas Maulers

Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel says that it is ludicrous for Congress to try to protect the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia by buying up land proposed for a giant shopping mall and office-residential development. But members of Congress are only trying to do what Hodel should have done in the first place.

The secretary's comments came in letters to newspapers in the home districts of Democratic congressmen supporting the legislation. He further accused them of playing politics with the future of the Manassas battlefield. Curiously, no such letters were sent to Republican members of Congress who also back the purchase plan. Just coincidence, an aide said.

The idea of preserving the integrity of Manassas is far from ludicrous. It is precisely what Hodel should be doing, as part of his legal responsibility for safeguarding the nation's most special natural regions and historic sites. As is too often the case, others must come to the rescue of an American treasure after the Interior Department either has failed to do so or refuses to do so.

The first great battle of the Civil War was fought along the stream known as Bull Run near the railroad junction at Manassas in Prince William County 27 miles west of Washington in July, 1861. It demonstrated that the South would be no pushover, as many Unionists had thought. In the second battle of Manassas a year later, Confederates ended a year-long Union invasion of Virginia, enabling the South to keep military pressure on the capital and to pursue the war for nearly three more years.

As proposed, the mall development would cover a 542-acre portion of the battlefield not now in federal hands, including Robert E. Lee's headquarters during Second Manassas, and would constitute a wall along the west side of the park. Hodel proposed a compromise with the developer that would have provided only minimal changes in the proposal. The drive for a federal takeover of the property began after that with Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), the first member of the Virginia delegation to jump into the fray. The landowner would be compensated with a fair price to be determined later.

Ideally, an acceptable compromise would be negotiated with the developer. Since this does not seem possible at this point, Congress should pursue the land-purchase legislation with vigor. Ludicrous? Nonsense. What is ludicrous is the idea that the secretary of the interior, the appointed protector of America's most sacred shrines, would allow this hallowed ground to be sacrificed to a shopping mall. And Hodel's attack on the sponsors of this legislation is playing politics of the most sordid kind.

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