National Parks Traveler 

Historic Sites At Risk From Climate Change

By Kim O'Connell

If plans had proceeded as energy company Cricket Solar had hoped, more than 380,000 solar panels would have been installed in Culpeper County, Virginia—a utility-scale array in the heart of some of the state’s most historic land.

Both Union and Confederate armies occupied and fought over the county during the Civil War, and it was a major staging area for the Manassas and Gettysburg campaigns. The scale of the plans led to an outcry from citizens and concerned parties, including filmmaker and Virginia resident Ron Maxwell, director of the 1993 film Gettysburg.

“The history we share in Virginia is at risk,” Maxwell wrote in a 2019 letter to county supervisors. “We are in danger of erasing the history that attracted many of us to call Virginia home.”

Cricket eventually withdrew its plans, but historic preservationists say that large solar facilities remain a threat to historic landscapes in Virginia and elsewhere. With climate change an ever-pressing issue, legislators are increasingly looking for ways to promote sustainability and alternative energy, but the scale of these proposals is creating tension between preservation and environmental advocates who are normally natural allies.

In April 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which is designed to phase out fossil fuel power plants and sets benchmarks by which electricity will come from 100 percent renewable sources such as solar or wind. The new law states that creating 16,100 megawatts of solar and onshore wind power is “in the public interest” and requires Virginia’s largest energy companies to construct or acquire more than 3,100 megawatts of energy storage capacity.

What this means is that large-scale solar facilities could be developed near places like Manassas National Battlefield Park, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. Large-scale solar facilities don’t carry the polluting emissions of traditional power plants, preservationists say, but they require large footprints, create associated traffic and development, and mar viewsheds.

In response, in December three organizations --the American Battlefield Trust, Preservation Virginia, and Cultural Heritage Partners-- released a report called Siting Solar in Virginia to help energy companies figure out how best to site their facilities in ways that protect historic and cultural landscapes and avoid opposition that can doom projects. The idea, according to Mary Koik, director of communications for the Trust, is to get ahead of the issue and foster creative proposals before cultural resources are irrevocably harmed.

“We set out to create some guidelines that solar developers can follow to proactively address historic preservation concerns [and to] give them the resources so they can plan well and avoid opposition,” Koik says. “It can be done – the largest proposal yet made for the state is in Spotsylvania County and they managed to avoid all of those battlefields. Because of the legislation and pending threat, the report is focused on Virginia but it’s designed to help create best practices that are applicable in any historic community, whether urban or rural.”

The report outlines the potential for conflicts between historic preservation and solar development goals and relevant policies and legislation, as well as a series of case studies that show how the two can coexist (or not). One solution, according to the Trust, is to install utility-scale solar facilities on greyfield or brownfield land or to co-locate them in spaces such as rooftops or parking lots.

But new solar arrays are being planned for various corners of the state—including a current proposal to build a large facility in Hanover County, Virginia, which includes the Gaines Mill and Cold Harbor sections of Richmond National Battlefield Park. (The Trust is currently working to acquire more land for preservation within the historic boundaries of these battles.) Although this particular solar proposal is in a different part of the county than those battlefields, the pressure to build in Virginia’s agricultural landscapes is increasing.

In Mississippi, the historic battlefield at Vicksburg National Military Park is facing pressure of a different kind. The park has been dealing with chronic erosion for decades, going back even to the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, which planted thousands of trees in an attempt to slow the tide. Still, erosion continues to be a serious problem, due to the very same loess soil systems that give the battlefield its rolling character. Loess soils are porous and friable and given to slumping and mass sliding.

In February 2020, the National Park Service embarked on a major rehabilitation project for the slope north of the Railroad Redoubt and Texas Memorial that was years in the planning. Unfortunately, within weeks a major storm led to additional widespread damage and erosion along park slopes and roads, as well as at Vicksburg National Cemetery, that was significant enough to close portions of the park.

“The situation had been deteriorating for years,” the Trust’s Koik says. “There was a years-long process for the NPS to get the money for the stabilization approved. And honest to God, two weeks after they started the storm came through and takes out roads in the park.”

In September, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith announced that $8 million in emergency funding had been allocated to the National Park Service for work at Vicksburg as well as the Natchez Trace Parkway, as part of a larger aid package for the state’s infrastructure. The park also has been working on more fine-tuned erosion mitigation measures including planting vegetation that grows well in the park’s specific soil conditions as well as engineered structures such as retaining walls.

But the erosion problem at Vicksburg is not going away, especially as climate change causes serious problems in Mississippi and other southern states. “Vicksburg and Natchez are vulnerable to high water levels on the Mississippi River,” according to a U.S. EPA report on climate change and Mississippi. “Since 1958, the amount of precipitation during heavy rainstorms has increased by 27 percent in the Southeast, and the trend toward increasingly heavy rainstorms is likely to continue.”

Unless widespread mitigation measures are put into place, that doesn’t bode well for the historic battlefield at Vicksburg.