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Biologist hopes native plants return to Fort Necessity

| Sunday, May 6, 2007

If George Washington could miraculously return to Fort Necessity, he would probably comment, "Yeah, this looks familiar, but what are these odd shrubs?" according to Connie Ranson.

Ranson, a biologist and the natural resources manager at Fort Necessity, was standing in a cut of land on the National Battlefield close to U.S. Route 40. On this gray, chilly spring day, Ranson and Rod Whiteman, of the U.S. Forest Service, were stomping on soggy ground amidst a tangle of budding honeysuckle bushes.

Whiteman was wielding a lightweight chainsaw; Ranson was holding a short black hose attached to a gallon jug of a vegetable oil and water herbicide.

Whiteman's job was to hack the honeysuckles to the stump, close to the ground. Ranson was following up with a spray from the jug.

It will take years to rid Fort Necessity of the exotic, non-native, Asian honeysuckles. There must be thousands of the species on the grounds. But Ranson is a woman of infinite patience and long vision. Her plan, hatched with the help of scientists from West Virginia University and approved by her bosses at the National Park Service, is to return Great Meadows to what it looked like during the battle of Fort Necessity in 1754 -- within reason, of course.

"We'll never get it back to what it exactly was like," she said, not even in 250 years, which is the incredibly long-term (and serious) timetable Ranson has in mind for the project.

"I'll do the best I can. That is all I can do. We want to lay out a vision. Keep a record of what we've done."

Others, many others, she said, will have to carry on the work into the indefinite future.

It took 253 years to shape Great Meadows into its present look. Ranson figures it will take the same amount of time to reshape it.

What's different about Great Meadows from Washington's time• Ranson started with the honeysuckle. Imported to North America from Asia early in the 19th century, the honeysuckle has spread across the length and breadth of Great Meadows.

"They've pushed aside a lot of the native plants," Ranson said, like alders, which are still around, just not in the abundance they were in 1754.

Ranson, who constitutes the entire Park Service staff assigned to this project, is fully aware of the amount of time and hard work it will take to get a handle on the honeysuckle problem. The best is to pull the honeysuckle out, root and branch. Second is to cut and mow the honeysuckle, and mow and mow and mow again. Third is the spraying that she and Whiteman were doing.

Because each method is labor- and time-intensive, Ranson has been reaching out for help. The Forest Service and other federal and state agencies have been on board for some time. Recently, Ranson has been thinking about trying to form a corps of citizen volunteers, for things like honeysuckle monitoring, if not for the actual cutting away.

Accounts of the 1754 battle, which pitted Washington's Virginia militia against a force of French soldiers and Indians, highlight the irregular method of combat carried out by the French and Indians. Washington, Ranson said, expected a European-style fight, in which the sides would form up opposite one another and, with rifles and bayonets at the ready, stride forward until one side faltered, scattered or fell back.

Instead, Washington's opponents took cover behind the chestnut and oak trees, the hickories and spruce and beech and cedars which were most abundant around the small stockade Washington's men had constructed. The French and Indians fired from deadly range at the poorly entrenched Virginians.

Those trees are largely gone now, the tree line pushed back a considerable distance from the stockade. As a result, evidence of the close-quarters fight waged at Great Meadows has been obliterated.

According to a veteran Park Service historian, Brian Reedy, Ranson's goal of restoring the tree line would be a giant step forward in dispelling myths that surround the battle of Fort Necessity.

By coming close to reclaiming the natural lay of the land, Reedy said, Fort Necessity will have achieved something that has been lost, for instance, at Gettysburg, with its clutter of statuary: a close-to-the-bone reality.

As far the tree line goes, Ranson would like to re-introduce the chestnut to Great Meadows.

To that end, she has held discussions with the American Chestnut Foundation, which has been waging a not-quite-successful fight against the 1904 blight that destroyed most American chestnuts, majestic trees 100 feet and higher that were once the pride of the eastern forest.

On Park Service property but out of sight of the fort is one of Ranson's joys: A 600-tree nursery that for the past several years has been incubating an assortment of oaks, hickories and sugar maples.

These 600 trees constitute the bulk of Ranson's reforestation plans, but they are not all she has in mind. Across Route 40 from the fort stand two ancient white oaks. Ranson called these "witness" trees, because they go back to the time of Washington. For sentimental reasons alone, Ranson would like to seed her new tree line with an offspring of one of the oaks.

Ranson is aware of the magnitude of her vision, and the revolving door that ushers out one notion of historical interpretation for another. "Did you know the 1939 plan (for Fort Necessity) included a swimming pool?" she asked, incredulous. The 1960s brought a new visitors' center, round like Fort Necessity, with a picture window that afforded tourists the opportunity to view the fort without stepping outside.

The newest visitors' center, which opened in 2005, is a quarter-mile from the fort. Visitors must walk to the fort to see it.

Some things may be beyond Ranson's ability to realize. The original ground on which Fort Necessity stood is 2 feet below the present fort. The ground fill that has been added over the years, in addition to the farming that was done on the land in the 19th century and the drainage devices installed in the 20th century, has altered the wetlands of Great Meadows and straightened the two creeks which course past the stockade.

Modestly, Ranson said she has designs on the creeks, but hauling away the land fill was another matter altogether.

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