Plans to expand Arlington National Cemetery were stalled at least temporarily following a public uproar over the potential removal of 900 Civil War-era trees, forcing officials to reconsider plans for the future of the nation's premier resting place.
The Army Corps of Engineers released a report in December that recommended removing 890 trees to make room for 31,000 additional grave sites on a 30-acre tract near the Arlington House. The expansion would allow the burial of military personnel at the cemetery through 2050.
But area residents and the county itself objected loudly to the removal of the trees in what is one of Arlington's last remaining old growth forests. And that prompted the Corps to a make a rare second evaluation of the site to determine how it can protect some of the trees and lessen the threat to local wildlife and streams. That evaluation will be done quickly to prevent any long-term delay for an expansion, officials said.
"[The community feedback] was significant enough that we wanted to go back and revise the document," said Mark Haviland, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers' Norfolk District. "We recognize that a lot of people have a lot of interest in this and that it's done and done right."
Haviland said agency officials will go back to the site to identify other ways to expand the cemetery that would meet the increasing demand for plots while saving at least some of the trees.
The trees at risk are located just west of the Arlington House, once the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and are often depicted in historic writings, drawings and photographs from the late 1800s, the original Corps report said. It's also one of only a few county forests preserved during the Civil War.
The loss of the forest and the threat of erosion along streams prompted Shannon Cunniff, chairman of the county's Environment and Energy Conservation Commission, a group appointed by the County Board, to write the Corps and ask for a "far more thorough" second study and a solution.
The Corps' original plan was to replace the trees it removes with 600 new ones, but local officials said that's not enough.
"Replacing a mature tree that took 200 years to grow with 4- or 5-year-old trees isn't the same," Cunniff said. "I think they know when it's responsible to give it a little more thought and assess their risks."
The prospect of Arlington's expansion being blocked troubled Doc Crouch, a member of VFW Post 3150 in Arlington. The legacy of Arlington National Cemetery must be preserved, Crouch said, and if extending its life requires cutting down a few trees, so be it.
"As long as it's done with discretion, it shouldn't be a problem," he said. "I know how they work, they won't just go crazy with a chainsaw. There's a lot of history there and they're generally good with maintaining it."
A second review of the site is scheduled to be complete and ready for public review by mid-March.