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Manassas Park Undertakes Unprecedented Tree Clearing

Deborah Fitts

- (September 2007) MANASSAS, Va. - Officials at Manassas National Battlefield Park are opening up a key battle vista for the first time in decades as they undertake the largest tree-cutting project in the park's history.

The 140 acres to be felled lie between the park's Brawner Farm and, a quarter-mile away, Deep Cut, an unfinished railroad bed where troops under Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson fought bitterly with attacking Union forces in the last days of August 1862.

With the trees gone, "It will be significantly different," predicted Park Superintendent Bob Sutton. He noted that in key action on Aug. 30, 18 guns at the Brawner Farm under Confederate Col. Stephen Dill Lee sent flanking fire into the Union left fighting at the Deep Cut.

At present, Sutton said, interpreting this crucial part of the battle is impossible. Although a 50-foot-wide swath of trees was removed two or three decades ago at Deep Cut, woods continue to obscure the view to the Brawner Farm. "No one can really understand what's going on," said Sutton. "Lee's guns fired on the Union front and left flank." When the trees are cut, "It'll make perfect sense. You'll be able to see the guns."

Cutting was due to begin in mid-August. Given good weather, it could be completed in "a matter of months," according to Sutton. Damp weather would curtail cutting, since the park has placed a condition on the private contractor "to not damage the ground."

An aerial photo in the 1930s shows the former pastureland "well filled-in" with trees, Sutton said. "So it's been returning to a wooded area for maybe a hundred years."

An 1884 photo that the park believes shows the Warrenton Turnpike (modern-day Route 29) and behind it the ground in question, indicates what Sutton calls "a savanna-like environment" - grassland with a few scattered large trees.

He said the contractor would leave some of the largest trees, to recapture the 1884 look. At the request of state arborists, the park will also spare two 5-to-10-acre stands of mixed oak and hickory. Such stands are "fairly rare" in Northern Virginia, especially given the rapid pace of development over the past several years.

The contractor will also leave a 100-foot buffer of trees along Featherbed Lane. The loop trail to Deep Cut will be closed till the tree-cutting is completed.

Sutton cited "some opposition" from the public. But he pointed out that songbirds "have almost disappeared from this area. The environment that's disappearing probably faster than any other is a shrub meadow, and that's what we'll be creating. We think this will have an environmental benefit as well as a historical one."

Plans to remove the woods were first cited in the park's 1983 General Management Plan. Money for the project "was not readily available," however, Sutton said, and it languished. The difference this time, he said, is that "we found a company willing to do it for the value of the trees."

The cutting coincides with a just-completed restoration of the Brawner house, a $1.5 million project that took a year and a half. The work included complete restoration of the farmhouse, a new road in from Pageland Lane, a parking lot, and a trail from the lot to the house.

Sutton said the house and the new drive and parking would be open by the end of August.

A house stood on the Brawner Farm during the battle but was heavily damaged. Although nails in the present structure suggest that it could predate the war, Sutton said the best guess is that this is a postwar building set on the same foundation.

The park is also planning to cut a 10-acre stand of pine trees on Matthews Hill that were planted a number of years ago by the park "where they thought there were woods, but there weren't," Sutton said.

Nearby the park will plant 5 acres of hardwoods, "spaced out," in an area where they stood at the time of the battle.

Sutton said the tree-clearing from Brawner Farm to Deep Cut is identical to the kind of sweeping cuts now opening up the Gettysburg battlefield.

"That's exactly what we're trying to do here," he said. "At many of these Civil War battlefields the landscape has grown up, and it's very hard to understand these battles."

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