Face Of This Place

John Howard

In celebration of the Fund’s 30th Anniversary, we sat down with John Howard, former Superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield from 1994 to 2011. John grew up in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, and now lives in Emmitsburg, Maryland. His passion for the environment spans from visiting places like Mount Whitney in the eastern Sierra Nevadas and the Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Take a moment to learn how the Fund became involved in protecting parcels in Antietam during John’s 17-year tenure.

What inspired you to pursue a career in conservation working at our nation’s National Parks?
I am not sure if inspiration is the right word, but while I was in high school, my summer jobs involved the use of a shovel. I shoveled dirt and gravel for the local water and gas company, as well as coal for a coal delivery service. When I got to college, I continued this type of work, until one day, my dad showed me a newspaper article about the opening of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area about 40 miles east of where I lived. The article stated that they were currently hiring, so I went out to the Recreation Area headquarters and applied for a job; as they say, “the rest is history.” During my time at Water Gap, I did a variety of things, including guiding canoe trips on the Delaware River, removing non-historic buildings, and working with the maintenance division. It was a dream come true. I worked outside with wonderful people and provided a service to the public, and for most of it, I didn’t have to use a shovel. Over the years, I discovered it was not only the mission and the places I loved, but the people who provided continued inspiration and hope. 

What is special about Antietam National Battlefield?
Where do I start? The landscape at Antietam is amazing in a simple, understated way. The story of the single bloodiest day in American history is overwhelming and humbling. But perhaps what is most special is the feeling that the Battlefield at Sharpsburg evokes. I have said many times that other battlefields or places may be larger or more majestic, but Antietam has a way of getting into your blood and soul and staying with you forever. The sacrifice made here by thousands of soldiers cannot be understated, and the fact that this horrendous battle occurred in such a peaceful place is astounding. When you walk the fields and forests of the Battlefield, you feel an amazing connection. After being there for 17 years, I can tell you I felt it every day. Some days it was a chill that did not belong, others it was listening to the sounds of the goldfinches at Bloody Lane or watching the turkeys walk in the fields near the final attack. Sometimes it was the overwhelming silence, which had a way of restoring perspective and order. How a place like this can be so beautiful and peaceful is perhaps the greatest tribute we can give to the soldiers of the battle. I am sure on the day of the battle they yearned for just a small glimpse of beauty, and now we all have that.

What was your first introduction to The Conservation Fund?
I believe my first interaction with the Fund was in a National Park Service Training session dealing with partners in conservation. A long time ago, when my hair was still brown, I remember the instructor showing us an overhead projector slide (I told you it was long time ago) of the kind of work the Fund had done and the investment it made in the United States. 

How did The Conservation Fund play a role in protecting Antietam?
Before I became Superintendent at Antietam, the Fund was already present in the preservation of the Battlefield. Prior to the Fund’s involvement, the American public could look at the land that made up the East Woods and Millers Cornfield, but look was all they could do. They could not walk the ground because it was in private ownership. Working with the National Park Service, the Fund began a long-term relationship with Antietam, gradually adding some of the most critical pieces of the Battlefield into public ownership for the American people. Now, everyone is free to walk the Cornfield and East Woods, to immerse themselves in the landscape that made up Bloody Lane and the mid-day phase of the battle.

The Fund’s actions not only allowed access, but it enabled the National Park Service to begin a historic landscape restoration program, which included reforestation of the east and north woods and construction of historic fences to mark the historic lines of battle. These land protection opportunities jumpstarted the land preservation and restoration programs on the National Battlefield.

What was one of your favorite moments during your time as Superintendent?
Being Superintendent of a National Park is something that is hard to compare to other things. With it comes immense responsibility and enormous joy and satisfaction. One day I was out on the Battlefield—it was early spring and plants were beginning to bud and the sky was as clear as a bell. I had left my office to get away from my computer for a while; in my heart I was still a park ranger, so I wanted to range a little. I stopped near Bloody Lane and enjoyed the stillness and cool air. I looked to the north and saw land that had been protected with help from The Conservation Fund. I looked to the northeast and saw land that had been protected by the National Park Service. Then I looked to east and saw land that had been protected by the State of Maryland. At that moment I realized this is the way it is supposed to be. So many partners had a hand in protecting this “crown jewel.” Organizations worked together to protect a landscape with a story that can never be recreated. Realizing the small part I had played in this made me laugh and I thought, “not bad for a boy from Carbondale, Pennsylvania.” 

Learn More

Civil War Battlefield Conservation: Focus on Antietam
Our work in Marylandaryland
More Face Of This Place