A Chesapeake National Recreation Area — a federal designation that would unite many of the region’s parks and resources under a common heading — is one step closer to reality.
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, both Democrats from Maryland, introduced a bill in late July that, if approved, would create the recreation area under the operation of the National Park Service. Parks throughout the coverage area could voluntarily participate in the program, which the bill says will provide additional federal resources to conserve the environment, increase equitable access to the Bay and celebrate the cultural and historical resources scattered throughout the region.
The concept is not new. An opinion article in the Capital Gazette in the 1980s floated the idea, which Sarbanes and others began pursuing in the 1990s. The National Park Service conducted a special resource study in 2004 that found the Chesapeake Bay to be “unquestionably nationally significant and a major part of the nation’s heritage,” according to a press release from the bill’s backers.
The recreation area has gained momentum and bipartisan support in recent years. A July 2022 public opinion poll found that 83% of respondents from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia favored establishing a Chesapeake National Recreation Area. A congressional working group was formed around that time and a draft version of the bill was released in November for public comment and stakeholder discussion. A press release stated that hundreds of public comments have been received since then and considered in crafting the final bill.
If approved, the Chesapeake National Recreation Area would become the41st place in the country with the designation and the 19thto be managed by the Park Service. Notable others 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, officials say the Chesapeake unit would, despite its estuarine name, center on land-based sites in Maryland and Virginia. 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.
A few things were changed in the bill’s final version introduced to both chambers of Congress on July 27. The bill now includes language requiring the Park Service to conduct transportation planning assistance on the initial sites included in the national recreation area. This is intended to reduce the potential burdens of traffic on surrounding communities, a release stated.
The bill lists four initial sites that would be centerpieces of the new program, with other parks and resources permitted to join the effort. Those four include a former waterman’s cottage and a 1700s-era manor in Annapolis; the distinctive Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse near the mouth of Maryland’s South River; and the North Beach of Fort Monroe in Virginia.
The bill also directs the park service to prioritize water and trail access as it develops programming. Advocates for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup say having a national recreation area will only aide the cause.
“Promoting and expanding public access to this national treasure is critical to meeting our clean water goals,” said Mariah Davis, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition. “Future generations cannot save what they don’t know.”
Davis also said in a statement that she is encouraged by the program’s focus on expanding water access to underserved communities throughout the region and to better communicating the contributions of Black, Indigenous and People of Color that have lacked recognition throughout history.”
In addition to the initial four sites, the recreation area would link up with the Park Service’s existing Chesapeake Gateways program, a network of more than 150 refuges, museums, historic communities and other resources throughout the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed. The bill proposes increasing the permanent allocation for the Gateways program from $3 million to $6 million annually but doesn’t specify other costs.
For some advocates, the creation of a Chesapeake National Recreation Area would be the culmination of decades of slow work. Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, one of the leading advocates for the program, called it a “30-year-long dream come true.”
Creating the designation not only “expands resources for environmental protection,” Dunn said, it also “makes it clear that the United States cherishes the Chesapeake, the birthplace of American identity.”
This article was originally published on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.