Sustainable Military Earthworks Management

Ditch and parapet under forest cover at Richmond National Battlefield Park, NPS photo.

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Management Context

The first American battlefield parks were created at the end of the 19th century to commemorate and preserve the landscape of the Civil War. Thousands of acres of battle-scarred terrain were set aside to honor and interpret the human drama of war. At the time of their acquisition, these battlefields were once again being farmed with the exception of areas where extensive earthworks survived. Except for earthworks in primary interpretive areas, most examples were allowed to "disappear" into regenerating woodland."

In 1933, the National Park Service (NPS) assumed active management of these and many other military historical parks as well as decommissioned coastal fortifications when the War Department by means of a presidential executive order transferred these sites to the park service. Like the War Department, interpreted earthworks managed by the NPS were cleared of woody vegetation and maintained in mown grass cover most often composed of lawn-quality turf grasses. In parks with extensive earthworks, many examples remained under forest cover because of the inability to provide regular maintenance. Without a uniform guide as to the best maintenance practices for earthworks, many cleared examples became severely eroded because of inappropriate maintenance operations, visitor trampling, the absence of a consistent vegetative cover, and other impacts.

The first coordinated attempt to assess the management of earthworks did not occur until the mid-1980s when the NPS conducted a study of military earthworks in four Virginia battlefield parks. This effort resulted in the Earthworks Landscape Management Manual (1989). The study found two conditions critical to earthworks preservation: first, to combat the destructive consequences of erosion, maintain a healthy vegetative cover on the earthworks with as little human intervention as possible. The study’s second important finding was military earthworks in forested conditions exhibited the least amount of erosion and contained the sharpest profiles and most legible features.

Typical field fortification and forms.


In 1995, NPS initiated the Guide to Sustainable Earthworks to further earthworks management research. Consultants on the project included experts in ecology, native plants, and forestry. Working independently in parks across the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, the project team’s research supported the two major findings of the Earthworks Landscape Management Manual. Additionally, research indicated that a cover of native species, once established, could be equal to or superior to lawn-quality turf grasses for adaptation to the changing climate and conditions on the earthworks and, in the long term, should require the least human intervention.

Today, earthworks management is viewed as an evolving science that requires an integrated approach to natural and cultural resource management. Many parks in the public and private sectors employ a variety of techniques in an effort to expand the range of successful management practices.

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