Property Rights Foundation of America®

Amendments Sought to Protect Private Property Owners
Washington-Rochambeau Trail Would Reach from Rhode Island to Virginia

The proposed Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail Designation Act (H.R.1286) is central to a historic corridor preservation program that presents the typical threats to private property rights posed by heritage corridors and National Park Service national trails. I was invited to testify when the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on October 30 in Washington, D.C., on the bill, which is sponsored in the House by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D, Kingston, N.Y.). The bill, which has a counterpart in the Senate (S. 686), follows passage of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Heritage Act of 2000. The testimony of Karen Taylor-Goodrich on behalf of the National Park Service outlined the rationale and extent of the proposed trail:

"The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route spans over 600 miles from Newport, Rhode Island where French forces under the command of Jean Baptiste Donatien de Viemeur, comte de Rochambeau landed in July 1780, to Yorktown, Virginia where with General George Washington and Continental Army forces, the combined armies forced the surrender of the British Army under General Charles Lord Cornwallis. Historians regard this cooperative endeavor resulting in the Yorktown surrender as one of the most decisive events in bringing the American Revolution to a successful conclusion."

The nine states that the Park Service trail would traverse are Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. The bill does not delineate the trail route, but instead references a map on file and available at "the appropriate offices of the National Park Service." New York's Hudson River valley would be a focus of the trail, judging by the expert witness who testified, Col. James M. Johnson, Ph.D., U.S. Army (Retired), Military Historian of the Hudson River Valley. Col. Johnson, who was head of the military history program at the United States Military Academy at West Point for fifteen years, is the Co-Vice Chair (New York) of the National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association. Ms. Taylor-Goodrich pointed out, "As one traverses the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, places that ring of our nation's revolutionary past come into view from… Peekskill [in New York on the Hudson] to Morristown, Princeton, and Trenton [all in New Jersey]..."

A look at the web site of the National Washington Rochambeau Route Association (W3R-US) reveals some of the localities most likely to be affected by preservation measures associated with the trail. W3R-US points out chronologically the following historic sites in New York that were important to the movements of Rochambeau's forces and the related movements of Washington:

Chronological List of Historic Sites Along Washington-Rochambeau Trail

Bedford (first Rochambeau camp in New York, 1781)
North Castle (now Mt. Kisco, French forces assembled)
Philipsburg (now Greenburgh, where Washington reviewed the French army and from where the forces of Rochambeau joined Washington's forces in the march southward)
Dobbs Ferry (Continental army Hudson crossing)
King's Ferry (New Jersey Line Hudson crossing)
North Castle (French army encampment)
Hunt's Tavern (Town of Yorktown)
Verplanck (French army Hudson crossing)
The Fortress at West Point
Haverstraw (now Stony Point)
Village of Suffern (before leaving New York for New Jersey)
(Victory at Yorktown, Virginia)
Village of Suffern (French re-enter New York)
Haverstraw (encampment)
Hudson crossing (French army)
Verplanck (French passed American army encampment)
Peekskill (French army rested)

These historic sites along the revolutionary route are located in Westchester and Putnam Counties on the east side of the Hudson River and Orange and Rockland Counties on the west. The W3R web site points out that the trail is envisioned to follow the model of the earlier Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, for which three types of route were designated, the true historic route, the re-enactor route used by people who walk roads and footpaths close to the route each year, and a tourism route that follows nearby highways. Col. Johnson's testimony also points out that General Rochambeau's headquarters, the Odell House, in Hartsdale, N.Y., is preserved. The W3R web site lists additional sites off the route of the troop movement that are related to the trail.

To add to the extent of preservation possibly to be associated with the combination of the trail and National Heritage Area, it should be noted that, according to Col. Johnson's testimony, "New York State's agency, Heritage New York, designated the Washington-Rochambeau Trail through Westchester and Rockland Counties as part of the New York State Revolutionary War Heritage Trail. He pointed out that the Washington-Rochambeau Trail "is also marked in the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area's (HRVNHA) American Revolutionary map guides, 'The American Revolution in the Hudson River Valley' and 'Revolutionary War Routes in the Hudson River Valley.'"

The complexity of interrelationships is multiplied with the incorporation of non-profit organizations, which is at its infancy. Ms. Taylor-Goodrich pointed out that the new nine-state nonprofit "partnership" group, the National Washington Rochambeau Route Association, was formed "to support designation of the trail and education of the public on the Revolutionary War." She said that this group "could be a key partner in the preservation and interpretation of the route." In addition to Col. Johnson, who testified, seated in the hearing room was at least one other individual representing the non-profit, Winfred Carroll, the association's Pennsylvania Regional Vice Chair.

A clause in the bill is designed to protect private property rights:

"Land acquisition – The United States shall not acquire for the trail any land or interest in land outside the exterior boundary of any federally-managed area without the consent of the owner of the land or interest in land."

During his testimony, Col. Johnson made a point that the bill protects private property rights because it prohibits eminent domain for the trail, as did Winfred Carroll in a conversation with me. But experiences with other Park Service-related trails and further information from testimony undercut the sense of confidence that the clause is meant to convey.

A section of Col. Johnson's testimony reveals the preservation focus of the trail proponents:

"Many of the historic vistas associated with the American Revolution will be lost to urban sprawl if action is not taken now. The W3R is an opportunity to combine historical and environmental preservation because, in addition to allowing the historical interpretation of a nationally significant route, the protection by local partners of the individual sites that comprise it will have environmental benefits with linkages to already existing and planned greenways and trails that will save the available open space along the route should it become available from willing sellers."

Thus, preservation of "historic vistas," protection from "urban sprawl," "linkages to existing and planned greenways and trails," and saving [acquiring] "open space" are goals associated with the proposed trail. These are among typical greenway, or National Heritage Area, goals, which, broadly speaking, involve preservation zoning (involving a complex of federal, state, and regional grants and other incentives and funding) and government and land trust acquisition of private land for parks and preservation.\

A more complex statement follows:

"The trail itself will need no extra land since it generally follows existing highways and roads. As explained in the National Park Service's Resource Study & Environmental Assessment, individual property rights will be preserved. 'The establishment of most national historic trails has not required federal acquisition of any land. Any action resulting from this study must respect private property rights while protecting the rights of the public to access and enjoy public lands…No acquisition of lands or interests in lands is proposed or anticipated in order to implement the trail. However, while the federal government would not acquire lands or other resources, the various states, local governments, and other organizations would not be precluded from acquiring lands and resources they deem to be of significant historical interest for preservation and public use.'"

The Colonel's testimony then jumps to the clause in the bill that prohibits Park Service eminent domain, but, if instead, one stops here, it is clear that the current pattern that is routinely used would be enabled to continue, namely the use of municipal surrogates to build sections of the trail or convert private land to government-owned land, with effective use of the threat of eminent domain. In my testimony, I cited two New York examples, the Erie Canalway Trail and the Delaware and Hudson Canalway Trail, where municipalities were used as eminent domain-wielding surrogates for the Park Service-related trails. So, the point that Col. Johnson makes that "the states, local governments and other organizations would not be precluded from acquiring lands and resources" is an apt statement of the obnoxious partnerships in which the Park Service engages, where it is nearly impossible to decipher the complexities of relationships that are diminishing private property ownership in any particular locality.

This brings us to the points in my testimony. At the hearing, I pointed to five deficiencies in National Park Service trails that can be dealt with by amending the Washington-Rochambeau Trail legislation.

1. The Secrecy Problem
The first deficiency is the secrecy problem. I cited the example of the Saratoga Canalway Trail, which was discovered to be on the drawing boards purely by accident when a citizen saw a secret meeting notice left in plain view on someone's desk. Uninvited, I attended the meeting and discovered that a new north-south trail was being developed under cover as part of the new east-west cross-state Erie Canalway Trail. The new trail would follow the Champlain Canal route or the Hudson River north to Whitehall at the southern end of Lake Champlain. Many property owners would lose some of their land, often prime waterfront, but none had been notified. The article that I wrote, entitled "Saratoga County Trail Shrouded in Secrecy," published in the PRFA newsletter, was picked up by the local daily, the Saratogian. But even with this circulation, no significant landowner action resulted.

Now, five years later, people in the vicinity of the border of the towns of Saratoga and Stillwater, the location of our photograph of the potential trail location that was published on our web site all these years, are complaining that suddenly trail cutting is taking place on their properties.

Such extreme secrecy should be prevented by amending the bill to prohibit any formal trail planning or work on the ground without mailed notification to property owners. This prohibition should even include trail sections through parkland, where long trails are usually started as a way of gaining foothold without arousing suspicion. Hearings should be held in every municipality to divulge the trail's exact route, as well as width and access spurs. The amendment should also prohibit the trail from going through any private property unless the owner consents in writing.

2. Lack of Public Participation
The Park Service invariably alleges that there is a great deal of public participation, but the spurious participation of interest groups does not substitute for the public and affected private property owners. An amendment to require notification of all private property owners before any parts of the trail are started would solve the deficiency of lack of public participation.

3. Piecemeal Development
Piecemeal development, starting with existing parks, stretches of trail along public streets, using local municipalities as covers for a more ambitious plan, and weathering local defeats only to return later after exhausting local resistance, are typical Park Service long term trail development techniques. This deficiency should be eliminated by amending the bill to require that the entire route of all sections of the trail be published simultaneously, so that its full effect is laid bare to the public and property owners.

4. Use of False Fronts for the National Park Service
Another deficiency that is typical of development of Park Service-related trails is the use of non-profit and municipal false fronts for the National Park Service. Non-profit "friend" groups are developed and nurtured by the Park Service, creating a false impression of local support while local property owners and citizenry are kept in the dark. The complexity of layers and layers of involvement and authority, comprehended only by specialists at the Park Service, effectively conceals the funding and decision-making for a major project. Grants from, through, and to multiple federal, state, and local agencies and non-profits and consultants weave a complex of government that is inscrutable. The bill should be amended to require that all trail development and management be done directly by the National Park Service, unless the trail is turned over to a state agency, which should be specified in the bill.

5. Use of Eminent Domain
In my testimony, I pointed out that the construction of a 600-mile trail is not an essential public service like a utility and therefore does not justify the use of eminent domain. The bill prohibits the use of eminent domain by the Park Service but does not restrict the use of eminent by surrogate municipalities, which the citizens of Rosendale along the Rondout Trail faced for a section of the cross-state Delaware and Hudson trail involving the Park Service. The bill should be amended to require that each state and municipality along the route of the trail amend its own law to prohibit the use of eminent domain for acquisition of any land for the trail, parkland, historical sites, or open space related to the trail or associated corridors in the region.

Just in case the clause prohibiting the Park Service from imposing eminent domain is in danger of being dropped, I advocated that, if eminent domain is to be used, any property that is sought by condemnation would have to be brought before Congress for special legislation.

The amendments advocated in my testimony related to the Washington-Rochambeau Trail should ultimately be incorporated into standard law related to all Park Service trails and other trails receiving federal funding. The connection of the proposed trail with the other greenways that have foothold in the Hudson River valley and the surrounding region from Albany to New York City argues for the importance of the property rights amendments in my testimony. The complicated overlapping power structures of these greenways and trails should finally be laid bare to the general citizenry, especially the property owners. -CWL

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© 2008 Carol W. LaGrasse
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