Good News for Tree Lovers, Not for Arlington Cemetery Park Service Wants to Give 4 Acres, Not 12

Score it as a victory for Arlington National Cemetery's tree lovers.

The National Park Service surprised cemetery officials and others yesterday by saying it wants to scale back a plan to use a dozen wooded acres for more graves, citing important archaeological sites and historic woodlands there.

In testimony before the National Capital Planning Commission, the Park Service said it now wants to give the Army only four acres for cemetery use. The commission reviewed the land transfer yesterday as part of a look at the blueprint for long-term development of the cemetery.

“We feel pretty good,” said Sherman Pratt, the director of the Arlington Historical Society, who joined a half-dozen others in speaking against the original plan at yesterday's meeting. “If we were able to save everything but four acres, that means that we have gone from zero to saving 80 percent of the land. . . . I would have to say that we have substantially won the war.”

In 1995, the Park Service agreed to move forward with plans to give the cemetery the 12 acres of woodlands near the Arlington House mansion, where Robert E. Lee lived before the Civil War. Congress approved the transfer on the condition that an archaeological and cultural study be done on the land. Another 12-acre parcel near the house already had been largely ruled out for graves because of its historic value.

But Stephen Potter, the chief archaeologist for the Park Service's National Capital Region, said his study of the 12 acres found wooded areas that are nearly identical to the ones Lee would have seen before the war. Potter described the woods as part of the oldest and largest tract of eastern hardwoods left in Arlington.

Potter said the study also found a quarry site that is 3,100 to 4,500 years old, where early Native Americans built primitive tools and spear tips. He said only four of the acres should be made available for graves at the cemetery, which is running out of space.

Pratt and other opponents of the transfer have argued that the land is the last tract of untouched land in the mansion area. They say it is vital to leave it undisturbed so that visitors to the house can get a sense of what the original 1,100-acre plantation was like before Union troops began burying dead soldiers there.

The change of course by the Park Service startled many at yesterday's meeting, including the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, John C. Metzler Jr. “I was surprised,” Metzler said. “But we will continue to work with the Department of Interior and see what happens.” The Park Service is part of the Interior Department.

Metzler wants the 12 acres to buy time. He estimates that Arlington, the country's most prestigious resting place for soldiers and veterans, will run out of room by 2025. He said the disputed tract would have given the cemetery burial space for about 10 years. That tract and others the cemetery is seeking could keep it open for burials for another century, he said.

The Park Service and the cemetery will have to try to iron out a new agreement, officials said. The Park Service will then hold a public hearing on the new proposal before it is finalized.

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