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Denman Zirkle: At the crossroads

Change is necessary for the survival of organizations.  Change rejuvenates as it provides the juices for new directions and new challenges.  Organizations that adapt to change survive; those that do not have a limited life.

So it is with the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation as we enter our thirteenth year.  When our National Historic District was established in the 1996 Federal legislation, and the non-profit Foundation to manage it was incorporated in 2000, our challenge was establishing relationships with local governments and planning commissions, spreading the word of our mandate to protect battlefield land within our eight-county District, and drawing the plans that were needed to implement our mission.

First came the Management Plan in 2000 that set out the fundamental precepts and policies of our operation.  This was followed during the next nine years by local preservation plans, and District-wide interpretation and tourism marketing plans.  Managing these plans was a big challenge — and still is.  But the primary mission of the Foundation – to protect some 14,000 acres of battlefield land – is at the heart of our challenge, today as it was then.

To kick the National Historic District and the Battlefields Foundation off to a good start, funding was legislated:  for battlefield protection, for battlefield maintenance and interpretation, and for management funds to hire the staff and run the operation that would support this mission.  In most of the intervening years, the battlefield protection funds, used to reimburse willing landowners who wanted to see their land protected by a sale, or the sale of a conservation easement, was provided by Congress.  The maintenance and interpretation funds were never provided, explaining why many of our properties are not in the condition we would like.  Most of the intended management funds have arrived regularly each year, providing the seed money for the accomplishments that have been made by the Foundation.

The accomplishments have been impressive.  Almost 6,000 acres of battlefield land have been protected forever by the Foundation and its partners.   Most of our battlefields have interpretative markers, and a District-wide visitors guide, maps (of the District and individual battlefields), self-guided driving tours, and interpretive and educational booklets are all now available.  A new website welcomes visitors to the District and directs them to local heritage sites and commercial establishments.  And the SVBF and our Valley partners have done a remarkable job in planning and presenting a host of Civil War Sesquicentennial programs.  Close cooperation of our staff with local partner organizations has provided the cohesion needed for our Valley’s story to be learned, recorded, and told.

The funding pattern that supported these accomplishments is now changing, and it is incumbent on the Foundation to respond with its own change.

We are aware that our Federal debt load demands that less be spent on every facet of Government.  This is already happening, and, while some funds are still available for land and heritage protection, it is likely this funding will contract in the years to come.

For the Foundation, this in turn means less funding will be available for preservation – less than the funds that have been sporadically received – and far less than were authorized by our legislation.

The Foundation will need to adjust to this new world of more modest Government support.

We are already meeting this challenge.  In 2009, Federal management support represented 65% of our operating funds.  In 2011 this share shrunk to 55%. In our current 2012 budget, the share will shrink further to 45%.

How was this achieved?

• Through more support from our partners, including the Commonwealth of Virginia.

• Through increased project grants from both governmental and private sources.

• And through more support from our constituents – our donors who believe in our mission and who have stepped forward to assure that it is implemented.

But, our work has just begun.  Our work in 2012 will require us to give a little more and work a little harder to continue the efforts that were started in 2000.  I know we are up to the task, and I am convinced we can be successful in increasing our internal funding more than enough to make up for decreases in Federal support.

With 6,000 acres of battlefield land already protected in the Valley, we are not resting on our laurels.  With 14,000 acres to go, we are counting on the continued support of our current donors – and the addition of new ones — to help us reach this goal.

Denman Zirkle is the executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.

augusta free press
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