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Three decades of discussion about the Chesapeake Bay having national park status could come to fruition under a fresh campaign.

The Chesapeake Conservancy in September launched a new website promoting the creation of an overarching national park for the region called the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, which would fall under the U.S. National Park Service. The designation would not create a single park site but encompass dozens of existing parks and public lands in voluntary partnerships and provide a broader framework for the ecological, cultural, historical, and recreational resources of the Bay.

Creating a national park requires an act of Congress and a planning process that can stretch out over several years. But a handful of leaders, including the governors of Virginia and Maryland, think that now is the time to strike.

“I believe the Chesapeake Bay is as grand as the Grand Canyon and as great as the Great Smokies and should be included in a new federal-state partnership,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan wrote in  a Sept. 14 letter to Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen supporting the measure.

The idea of a national park devoted to the Chesapeake was floated as far back as 1986, when the publisher of Annapolis’ Capital Gazette, Philip Merrill, wrote an opinion piece on why it would be a “good idea.” The National Park Service has long had a footprint in the Bay watershed, with about 30 units located in the region, including major sites such as Fort McHenry National Monument, Colonial National Historical Park and George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument located close to the water.

The Park Service also coordinates the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which is a linked series of more than 100 natural, historic, recreational, and cultural sites. Most are owned and managed by other organizations but, together, they highlight components of the Bay’s “story.”

The Park Service scoped out the possibility of a Chesapeake-focused park as part of a special resource study completed in 2004. That study recommended expanding the Bay Gateways Network before working toward national park status.

A devoted national park, though, would make that storytelling more cohesive, advocates say, and could draw additional visitors and dollars to the region. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, in a letter to Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, pointed to the economic benefits such an asset could bring to the state.

The Aug. 3 letter stated that 21 national park units in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania added more than $800 million to the region’s economy in 2018, in addition to the $586 million generated by national parks in the District of Columbia.

Joel Dunn, president, and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, which is leading the charge for the park, said he landed on the idea of a national recreation area after visiting the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of 18 such sites in the country.

“They typically surround water bodies and are structured to allow hunting, boating, fishing, and traditional outdoor pursuits, which are values that we want to support in the Chesapeake, too,” Dunn said.

Dunn thinks this coming legislative session is the best time for legislators to present the concept in Congress, and having Sen. Van Hollen on the key U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee doesn’t hurt. 

The Chesapeake Bay Commission also supports the national recreation area and would work closely with it. Van Hollen and Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes to advocate for it during the next Congress.

“The COVID crisis has clearly demonstrated that people love their parks,” Dunn said. “We’d like to capitalize on the public’s expanded use of outdoor recreation to create some lasting infrastructure.”


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