Letting God Sort Them Out: National Park Service Cuts Down Gettysburg “Witness Trees”

witnesstree8-08The National Park Service has a curious way of protecting history. The Service cut down four “witness trees” from the Gettysburg battlefield. The white oak trees were between 160 and 229 years old and were present at the battle. They were supposed to be protected, but the NPS appears to chop now and ask questions later on matters of history. The NPS policy appears to be to cut down and let God sort them out.

The service has been thinning the forest at the battlefield to allow smaller trees to grow. All three trees were within a couple of hundred yards of each other. The NPS and its defenders do not appear particularly concerned over the act of gross recklessness: “well, when you cut down hundreds of trees, you’re bound to make some mistakes and cut down some witness trees.” The problem is that Congress left it to the NPS to protect these historic areas. Clearly, that trust has been misplaced at Gettysburg. The supervisor of this site should be questioned by Congress on why the NPS does not take minimal steps to identify historic trees before whacking down hundreds of trees with abandon.

For the full story, click here.

11 thoughts on “Letting God Sort Them Out: National Park Service Cuts Down Gettysburg “Witness Trees””

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  2. I have a project to document as many witness trees as possible on the 3 day battlefield and on the fringes such as Hunterstown and the downtown section of Gettysburg. It is amazing to me that many of these blogs keep citing the same witness trees and ignoring obvious ones that stand out at various areas of the park. So far I can provide proof via grounding cables and the scars left on the trees and also metal tags or remnants of other markers. In many of the wooded areas such as the Schultz, McMillan, Pitzer, and Biesecker areas are some huge trees which if you check contain markings. I even found one which is still properly grounded and documented with a tag. There are also several which are not marked at all but due to the size and girth of the tree definitely exceeds 146 years. They are very important as are building structures as the only entities that can give us a real feel of history and can actually link us with the history of the battle. Extreme care is being taken to rebuild the William Patterson house on Taneytown road to preserve its presence on the field and the house is not a really significant structure compared to others. Well the same care should be given to preserve any tree that is either known or suspected to be part of the original battlefield. Anyone interested in these other trees can check them out on my facebook album which will continually be updated.

  3. Hi, teknikAL – thanks for your follow-up comment to mine. If you read through the gettysburgdaily.com article that JT links to at the bottom of his post, you’ll note that they say that this particular woods was wooded at the time of the battle.

    The people who run this independent website appear to be local history experts, and I have no reason to doubt this statement. What’s more, the photos accompanying the article bear them out. Many of the old witness trees now being felled are or were growing quite close to each other. Had this particular area been open field or pasture land in the mid 1800s, it’s unlikely there would be so many pre-Civil War aged trees – in some cases very pre-Civil War, to go by the ring counts that the gettysburgdaily people did of their freshly cut stumps – growing in groups there.

    The “lines of sight” restoration idea you mention is interesting. A more demanding task, I guess, than plain old woodlot management!

    Sorry, btw, for the extra “n” in my username above. Being innocent doesn’t protect you from typos.

  4. As a follow up, it makes sense Li’l Innnocent to remove 60% of the trees. Most of Gettysburg was farm fields at the time of the battle.

  5. I am aware of an ongoing controversy (as my brother in law is a conservative historian and the Civil War is his concentration) that the “tree thinning” was intended to return the sight lines of the battle field to that of the day of battle. It seemed that many smaller trees had filled in over the years and documented “witness trees” that had died or were diseased and removed and were to be replanted.
    Sounds like that original plan was forgotten for wood lot management. Could be the historians and preservationists (haven’t heard that word in a while) were replaced with commercial forest managers.

    What ever happened to the mega mall and development pressure that was encroaching on the park boundaries?

  6. The article linked to shows pictures of perfectly, perfectly healthy trees. Yes, I agree it sounds like wood-lot management… I wonder if the Penn State “authorities” knew exactly WHAT woodlot they were advising on??? Maybe if somebody lights a fire there it might help???

    It’s probably just “Bush-rot” (I LIKE that!) at work though. My husband (the woodworker) was musing, “wonder if they’re selling them for lumber… the Bushies were/are so big on NPs paying for themselves…” (If they are, they’re probably not even bright enough to sell them for the quality they are!)

  7. Might this be evidence of Bush-rot in the National Park Service, which suffered (at the very least) considerable funding losses under W? The NPS “defender’s” comment quoted above sounds very Bushian – – another Michael Brown or Chertoff frog croaking obliviously in a pond too big for him or her. It also sounds like no one responsible is supervising the tree removal program, which would be par for the course. Does the NPS contract out this kind of work?

    What about that claim that the NPS is “following directions on the proper way to thin trees from experts at Pennsylvania State University”? I’ve read a little about woodland ecology, and I doubt that a reputable expert would advocate the removal of first 25% of large trees, and later a removal of over 60%! A natural woodland contains young, middle-aged, mature, ageing and dead trees. If your only goal is to promote the growth of young trees so they in turn can be cut, you’re managing it not as a natural woods, but as a commercial lumber enterprise.

    People can be stunningly ignorant about this stuff, at a very basic level. Some years ago a neighbor had a huge oak removed from beside her house, a 1950s-vintage split level, because (as I heard at second hand) the tree was marking her siding. It was over 70 ft. tall, in good health and took at least a week to remove; the chainsaws blared constantly, and the ground shook with the fall of heavy limbs for days on end. The homeowner reportedly told one of the tree guys that she couldn’t understand why the original property developers had planted a tree so close to the building…. The man replied, no doubt wearily, “Lady, that tree was there 200 years before your house.”

    I understand that in the UK, you have to get local government permission to remove a healthy tree that’s larger than a certain diameter. They lost most of their woodland to the march of Progress, and they’re inclined to be careful about the little that’s left.

  8. This is disturbing. As many visitors to Gettysburg know, the “Copse of Trees” above Cemetery Ridge is regarded as the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. It is a living historical landmark and stands as tribute to the terminus (along with “The Angle”)of Pickett’s Charge. That the Park regards other flora as expendable is sad.

  9. What a shame. That the NPS employees could not estimate the age of the witness trees by D.B.H. alone, or even by a commonsense and cursory ocular estimate of girth and height, demonstrates their abject stupidity.

    I would also not be surprised to learn later that a certain distinguished NPS staffer identified as Chief Forester Bole Deadwood, Ph.D., summa cum laude, had approved the tree thinning operation following an inept and falsified EA at the government’s own lowballed estimated taxpayers’ cost of $1.783 million.

    Of course, that cost estimate was calculated by government economists before cost overruns that are now protected from public disclosure pursuant to an exemption of the Freedom of Information Act…

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