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Draft legislation that calls for a Chesapeake National Recreation is being floated for public comment/Michael Weiss
Just the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay — how a meteor formed it, the size of its watershed, its diverse fisheries, its tributaries, wetlands, and islands — could justify the bay’s addition to the National Park System, but when you add the American and cultural history to that, it seems almost to have been an oversight that there is no unit of the National Park System that celebrates this unique and complex ecosystem.
That oversight could be righted if Congress supports legislation now being drafted that would establish a Chesapeake National Recreation Area. It’s a vision that has been in the works for some years, and which, if fulfilled, would not only bring economic benefits to the bay and its communities, but could also improve recreational access to its waters and even help restore the health of those waters and their fisheries, believes Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.
“Lots of presidents, Republicans and Democrats by the way, have recognized the Chesapeake as a national treasure, highlighted how it’s our nation’s largest estuary,” Dunn said Monday afternoon following a press conference in Annapolis. Maryland, by U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes to announce release of the draft measure for public comment. “But despite all that kind of work, recognition, there is no unit of the National Park System devoted to the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake is really as spectacular as Yellowstone or Yosemite, or as great as the Great Smokies, or as grand as the Grand Tetons. But despite all that, and despite our natural cultural and historic resources, it’s not represented in the National Park System.”
The bay area is rich in natural, historical, and cultural resources/Michael Weiss
The bay is the largest estuary in North America at nearly 200 miles long, and contains some 18 trillion gallons of water. Measure the watershed that feeds the bay — more than 100,000 rivers, creeks, and streams contribute water — and you come up with an area of roughly 64,000 square miles, or, as the National Park Service puts it, “about seven times larger than the state of New Hampshire.”
As Traveler Contributing Editor Kim O’Connell pointed out in a 2021 article, the Chesapeake Bay boasts immense ecological and economic value. According to 2021 numbers from the Chesapeake Bay Program, the bay is home to an estimated 282 million blue crabs, its most iconic symbol. It supports nearly 350 species of finfish and 173 species of shellfish, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, including striped bass, Atlantic menhaden, drum, mackerel, bay scallops, knobbed whelk, and hard clams. Some 500 million pounds of seafood are pulled from the bay each year and brought to market.
The bay also contains numerous cultural and historic sites, noted O’Connell, including those related to Indigenous peoples, free and enslaved Blacks, and watermen and women whose livelihoods depend on a healthy waterway. This waterway already includes several national park units, including the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the Werowocomoco village site, Fort Monroe National Monument, and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park.
The roots of U.S. history are deep in the Chesapeake area. America’s earliest colonial-era cities were situated at or above the fall line of rivers that end in the bay, including Richmond, Virginia, on the James River, Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the Rappahannock, Washington, D.C., on the Potomac, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna.
Today, charming bayside towns are home to the working watermen who harvest blue crab, oysters, and shad. And there are seemingly endless miles of water-supported recreation. You can boat, fish, or simply cool off in a river or bay.
While the bay is large, roughly 200 miles long, the entire area would not turn into a formal national park site. Rather, the draft legislation calls for the Park Service to acquire or partner with Burtis House, Whitehall Manor, Thomas Shoal Point Lighthouse, and the North Beach of Fort Monroe by voluntary sale or donation to serve as the first sites within the proposed recreation area.
Additionally, the Park Service would have the authority to acquire additional lands or property through voluntary donation, purchase from a willing seller, exchange, or transfer from another agency in consultation with the recreation area, as well as have the ability to enter into voluntary “opt-in” partner site and cooperative management agreements with and provide federal funding to state and local governments, tribal governments, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, and private landowners that wish to be included in the unit.
Designation of the bay as an NRA would not only unite the various park system units that already dot the bay under one umbrella, but also bring greater attention to the threats posed against the natural resources.
“The outdoor recreation industry in the Chesapeake is very, very strong. So it fuels our economy. When people depend upon a resource for their livelihood,” Dunn said, “they tend to want to protect it and preserve it and make sure it still functions for them. I think a national recreation area that celebrates recreation, and even commercial fisheries, will benefit those industries. But perhaps the bigger and maybe more indirect result is that all that access that it creates, will create the next generation of Chesapeake Bay conservation and restoration professionals.”
Currently, the National Park Service operates a Chesapeake Bay office that works to “connect people to experiences of the natural and cultural heritage of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers,” but the agency needs a larger, and permanent, office to further that mission, said Dunn.
“It operates the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Program, which had been in existence for almost 25 years. And it is a very successful program, but it is not permanently authorized,” said Dunn. “It has to be reauthorized every couple of years, and it does not automatically get an appropriation. It has to be advocated for every year. And the Park Service also is a partner in the Chesapeake Bay Program, which is the effort to restore the bay. But that is not a legislative authorization. That’s an administrative authorization. It’s really important that we codify the National Park Service in the Chesapeake through the creation of a permanent unit.”
Among the impacts that office has had is the Chesapeake Storytellers Program, a joint venture between the Park Service and the Maryland Department of Commerce’s Office of Tourism. The idea, O’Connell pointed out in her story of a year ago, is to connect visitors who are seeking authentic Chesapeake experiences with locals whose livelihoods depend on the bay, either on land or water. The Storytellers program provides training and certifies tour guides as authorities in whatever their area of expertise is—whether that’s crabbing and fishing, history, hospitality, boat-building, and more.
“Together with the Maryland Office of Tourism, we developed this idea and concept of training water tour operators to be ambassadors of the bay, so they could learn some of the techniques that traditional NPS rangers use in storytelling,” Wendy O’Sullivan, superintendent of the NPS Chesapeake office, which partners with state and nonprofit groups, such as the Chesapeake Conservancy, to promote conservation and tourism opportunities throughout the watershed, said at the time.
For Sen. Van Hollen, designation of the NRA would bring an array of benefits to the region.
“After years of work with our committed partners who treasure the Bay and its bounty, we are proud to present a proposal that will spotlight its unique story and historical significance, generate more prosperity for those who make their livelihood from it, leverage more federal investment, and encourage greater public access to the Bay’s beauty and cultural landmarks,” he said at Monday’s press event. “The release of this discussion draft is just the beginning – we look forward to continuing our engagement with all community stakeholders to get their input on how we can build on this foundation to create a Chesapeake National Recreation Area to achieve our goal of bringing national recognition and greater opportunities to our Bay region.”
Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, grew up alongside the bay and served as the Maryland dirctor of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She sees the bay as a perfect addition to the park system.
“The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the world. Thousands of years of history and one-of-a-kind natural wonders come alive here, and many generations of watermen have worked to protect them,” she said, “Countless families have sailed the Chesapeake’s beautiful waters, celebrated milestones on its shores, and tasted the famous blue crabs from its depths – including my own family, for decades. For many of us, the Chesapeake Bay means home.
“And we all need to work together to protect this place that feels like home,” added Pierno. “Creating the Chesapeake National Recreation Area would protect this place to the highest possible degree, and expand public access so everyone can appreciate how special it is. A new national park site would create recreational opportunities for local residents as well as travelers throughout the region.”
For now the vision resides in draft legislation. As proposed by the initiative, the Chesapeake National Recreation Area would “utilize a collection of partnerships with states, localities, and private entities intended to highlight the diverse landscape and national significance of the Chesapeake Bay.”
The Chesapeake Bay/Michael Weiss
As drafted, the legislation would not “impose any additional regulations on recreational or business activities in the Chesapeake Bay waters, nor will the National Park Service authority supersede state authority on these matters,” the politicians said. State parks and other public land entities within the area could opt-in to be considered part of the NRA.
While a change in party control of the House of Representatives from Democrats to Republicans could impede movement of the legislation in that chamber, Dunn is confident the measure when formally introduced next year will garner bipartisan support.
“One thing that I’ve found is that there is enormous support for this idea. There’s a whole coalition of over 150 people across the watershed, community leaders, nonprofit leaders, elected officials, all strongly in support of this idea,” he said. “We did a public opinion poll in July, it was like 1,300 people, so a pretty big poll, you know, for these days. And in Virginia, Maryland, District of Columbia, 83 percent supported creating a national recreation area. That’s a pretty high percentage poll.”
You can find additional details on the draft legislation and comment on it at this site.
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Born and raised in Maryland. While no one will say that MD’s state park system is exemplary, the job the state has done over the last 25 years to rehabilitate and promote the health of the Chesapeake Bay has been.
The notion that the federal government can improve access to the Bay by spending more money is laughable to anyone who knows anything about the Bay. There are thousands of points of access for fishing, boating, swimming, sun bathing, birding and everything else anyone could possibly want to do.
The notion that the federal government will not impose any additional regulations is similarly laughable. It’s what they do. Ask the WV residents around the New River Gorge. Oh wait, that NRA was merely a stepping stone to a full federal takeover when they made it a national park recently.
This is what the bureacracy does. It grows.
National Recreation Area designation would be a modest positive step.
The NRA advocate quoted in the article correctly notes that the Chesapeake Bay is “as spectacular as Yellowstone or Yosemite, or as great as the Great Smokies, or as grand as the Grand Tetons.” However, instead of second-rate status as an NRA, a full National Park could be designated.
This park could include not only cooperative agreements with state and local land agencies, but also significant public acquisition from willing sellers.
Now is the time for this kind of bold vision.
They just want to privatize more lands and profit off of them with recreation gov. this has nothing to do with conservation or anything else. The NPS has failed to even listen to the public let alone act in their good interests.
Long overdue. Great idea
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