A formal proposal to create a Chesapeake National Recreation Area is ready to move forward, according to advocates in Congress.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. John Sarbanes, both Democrats from Maryland, introduced a draft bill Nov. 14 that would unify historically important sites as well as partner parks in the region under a single banner.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) joined conservation officials and other lawmakers to announce draft legislation that could designate the Chesapeake Bay region a National Recreation Area. Credit: Anne Delano Weathersby / Play Back Shots

Backers say the designation would elevate the Chesapeake Bay’s public profile and help attract more federal dollars toward improving the public’s access to the water, hiking trails, historic sites and other places of interest.

“It will unlock more opportunity and federal resources for the Chesapeake Bay area,” Van Hollen said during a press conference on the Annapolis waterfront, where he was among several lawmakers and conservation leaders taking turns behind a lectern to voice their support. “The National Park Service will have an even bigger role here, and that will help us better tell our story to America.”

The lawmakers also announced the opening of a 90-day public comment period. They said they will use that feedback to finalize the legislation to be filed in both congressional chambers. The public can learn more about the effort and submit comments at vanhollen.senate.gov/cnra.

If approved, the Chesapeake National Recreation Area would become the 41st place in the country with that designation and the 19thh to be managed by the Park Service. Notable places include Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam; the islands of Boston Harbor; and Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest point.

Under the proposed legislation, the Chesapeake unit would, despite its estuarine name, center on land-based treasures in Maryland and Virginia, officials say. The proposed area runs from just north of Annapolis to Hampton Roads in Virginia, including parts of the Eastern Shore and extending west slightly beyond Richmond.

The bill would allow the Park Service to acquire or partner with four sites that would become the unit’s first showcases:

  • The Burtis House, a former waterman’s cottage under restoration next to the Annapolis City Dock. It was the backdrop of the Nov. 14 announcement.
  • Whitehall Manor, a 1700s-era home on Broadneck Peninsula, just outside Annapolis.
  • The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse near the mouth of Maryland’s South River. Its distinctive “screwpile” structure is one of the Bay’s most iconic sights.
  • The North Beach of Fort Monroe in Virginia, a site imbued with military history as well as being where the first enslaved Africans arrived in English-occupied North America.
The Thomas Point Lighthouse in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay is shown here in the 1980s, shortly before the light was automated and the last resident lightkeeper ended his tenure there. Credit: Dave Harp

The Park Service also would link the recreation area with the existing sites of the Chesapeake Gateways program, a network of more than 150 refuges, museums, historic communities and other places throughout the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed. The legislation sets aside a permanent allocation of $6 million a year for the Gateways initiative.

Supporters emphasized that the new unit will only work with properties and entities that willingly opt into the partnership. There will be no new regulations nor any land purchases from unwilling property owners. And they said it would not supersede state laws or any fish and wildlife protection efforts.

The new designation won’t lift the Chesapeake to the level of protection enjoyed by national parks. But several advocates said that it is an idea —discussed as far back as the 1980s — whose time has come.

“The Chesapeake is the birthplace of American identity and the landscape that bore witness to the many diverse people who have lived along its shores,” said Chesapeake Conservancy President and CEO Joel Dunn, one of the leading promoters. “Their stories are worthy of National Park Service interpretation and education.”

This article was originally published on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.


Jeremy Cox

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Maryland.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply