Wilson’s Creek Battlefield Feels Development Pressure
By Kelly Garbus
REPUBLIC, Mo. — In the pristine world of the preservationist, the bucolic ambience of Wilson's Creek National Battlefield near Republic would remain — and a proposed 2,200-acre residential development on the park's southwest boundary wouldn't.
But that appears highly unlikely, especially since Wilson's Creek, where more than 17,000 troops clashed over control of Missouri in August 1861, is in one of the fastest-growing parts of the state.
In military parlance, some would say the 1,750-acre battlefield is on its way to being surrounded and cut off by housing and other development.
At issue is the safeguarding of historic vistas and the preservation of remaining acreage that was battlefield, but now is outside National Park Service (NPS) boundaries.
Of key importance is 155 acres along ZZ Highway outside the park's southwestern boundary where Missouri Partners Inc. of Hollister, Mo., wants to build 2,500 to 3,000 houses.
Park Superintendent Ted Hilmer says protecting the 155-acre site is critical because of its historical significance, documented through diary accounts and sketches. Confederate and Union encampments occupied the acreage and soldiers fetched water from Moody Spring, which still exists.
The site also was on a major transportation route known as the Wire Road or the Telegraph Road, and is believed to have ties to the earlier Cherokee Trail of Tears.
A preliminary concept plan for the development project, however, projects a road going through the acreage to serve as the main entrance to the subdivision.
The NPS already owns 75 percent of the land on which the Battle of Wilson's Creek was fought. Congress last October approved legislation that would pave the way for the park service to begin acquiring the balance, 615 acres. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of the additional acreage at $5 million to $10 million over the next five years.
The legislation was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican from Springfield, near the battlefield, and supported by U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, also a Missouri Republican. The legislation identifies several parcels surrounding current park land, including the 155 acres.
The bill also set aside $4.5 million for the first purchase, which is likely to be General Sweeny's, a private museum focusing on the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi theater located on 20 acres immediately north of the park.
The legislation gives the park service authorization to begin negotiations with willing landowners, but whether Missouri Partners would be interested in negotiating over those 155 acres is unknown.
The president of Missouri Partners, Steve Redford, and an attorney for the company did not return phone calls for this story.
Missouri Partners in early March appointed a facilitator to address park service concerns, but Hilmer says he is not optimistic.
The proposed development would straddle the line between Green and Christian counties. Rezoning for commercial and residential development on a 245-acre portion in Greene County, west of the battlefield, has been approved by the county. The Springfield News-Leader reported the new zoning allows for 517 homes and 31 acres of commercial development.
A decision on the remaining 2,000 acres in Christian County is expected by mid-May.
Hilmer expects commercial development, like convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, will follow the growing population. That will spawn a need for expanded highways to handle the thousands of new vehicles that will travel the once scenic and quiet rolling hills.
"It's a spin-off and it's going to happen very quickly. It looks rural right now, but it's all going to change," he warns. "We're not saying development is bad; we're saying that we're not building too many Civil War national parks anymore, so we should protect what we have for future generations."
Already the Republic R-III School District has purchased 148 acres about 1 mile north of the battlefield for a new high school. Pam Hedgpeth, district superintendent, says phenomenal growth in the area is tied to nearby attractions like Branson and Silver Dollar City and numerous lakes. In addition, she says people from the East and West coasts were moving in because of the cheaper cost of living.
Hedgpeth says the school construction site was the district's top choice because it was in the middle of the school system's population base.
"It was on the market and it was either going to be the school or a developer who bought it," she says. "We feel we are a much better neighbor to the battlefield than a housing development."
Hilmer says a 185-foot water tower is going in northeast of the battlefield to serve a new housing development about a half-mile from the park's east boundary.
Meanwhile, the battlefield remains on the annual Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) "10 most endangered battlefields" list for the second year. The CWPT warns the encroaching development would have a "devastating impact on the park — both destroying key parcels west of the battlefield and serving as a magnet for irreversible sprawl."
Hilmer says the battlefield is not just a local treasure, but part of state and national history as well. Then there is the welcome financial impact of the 200,000 tourists who visit the battlefield park annually.
"This is a good commodity to protect," he says.
A CWPT brochure on the economic benefits of saving battlefields cites Sierra Club and The Trust for Public Land studies showing that building houses can "actually cost more in services than it generates in taxes," while open land can generate a net gain.
In addition, the brochure notes Civil War tourists have a mean income of $67,000, spend an average of nearly $52 per person per day, and usually stay longer at their destinations.
"It's hard to appeal to peoples' passions and history, but it's easy to appeal to their pocketbooks," Hilmer says. "I feel very comfortable that the county commissioners realize that Wilson's Creek is very important for Christian County."
David Stokely, a homeowner who lives east of the site of the proposed development, says he is concerned about the environmental impact and the "enormous footprint" that would be made in the mostly rural area. He says the terrain is delicate and made up of underground water sources and caves.
"Right now Terrell Creek is a nearly pristine, crystal spring and this development will have a negative impact on that," he says of the wartime stream on the 155 acres.
Stokely says Civil War battlefields are not as easy to come by as houses.
"You can always build another house," he says. "I think future generations will look back at what we're doing here today and not believe it.
"Once this is a housing development, it can never be reclaimed."