ANNAPOLIS — Maryland and Virginia lawmakers in the U.S. Senate have formed a working group with more than 20 advocacy organizations to establish a national recreational area in the Chesapeake Bay, breathing fresh life into an idea that has floated around for decades since former U.S. President Ronald Reagan first called the largest estuary in the country a national treasure.

For the first time, the working group will examine where the land-based park would be located, how large of an area it would encompass and address any environmental concerns, along with a list of tough questions raised by the public, as it works to draft legislation.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and U.S. Congressman John Sarbanes, D-Md., are leading the working group, which includes large organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, National Park Conservation Association, Watermen of Maryland and Chesapeake Conservancy.

Van Hollen said in a statement that he “looks forward to working with our community members to explore this exciting opportunity for the Bay and for our state.”

“Marylanders know the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure, but creating a Chesapeake National Recreation Area as part of the National Park Service will bring national recognition, better ensure its long-term protection, secure more federal resources and bring more dollars to those who make their livelihood from the Bay,” he said. “Our working group includes a diverse set of stakeholders — from environmental advocacy organizations to local businesses — and government officials from around the region. Together, we will collaborate over the coming months to develop legislation to create this historic designation.”

Maryland has numerous national destinations and parks, including the Chesapeake Gateways program, a loose connection of signage and recreational areas on the Bay like the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

But making the Bay a unit of the national park system managed by the U.S. National Park Service, would bring in more resources, opportunities and funding, according to Chesapeake Conservancy, an environmental conservation non-profit that has pushed for national parkland on the Bay since its inception.

“A Chesapeake National Recreation Area would be a land-based, 21st-century park, uniting new and existing National Park Service sites and trails,” said President Joel Dunn in a statement, “as well as partner parks, to increase public access to the Bay and to create a national park worthy visitor experience for all to enjoy.”

The newly formed working group, announced on March 11, might be giving traction to the decades-long push to create Chesapeake Bay parkland managed by the U.S. National Park Service, but group members have a number of questions and technical details to examine — including that 98% of the Bay’s 11,684 miles of shoreline is private.

“So much of the Bay’s lands are privately owned,” said Reed Perry, the manager of external affairs at Chesapeake Conservancy. “We’re very sensitive to that.”

Reed said that currently, “we don’t have a sense of what that footprint” would be for the size of a potential park because of the limitations of private ownership.

Two possible locations for parkland — which would have visitor centers, wildlife refuges and smaller, local park areas, Perry said — are in Annapolis and near Fort Monroe in Virginia. But the Eastern Shore should have good access to the park, Perry said, encouraging local residents to get involved with the working group and any potential legislation.

The Chesapeake National Recreational Area would essentially be a national park. The U.S. National Park Service uses a number of designations and titles for its 423 national sites, including “National Seashore” or “National Battlefield” but those are just distinctions.

With national park status comes a list of benefits but also the usual pack of tourists. It’s unclear how many tourists would visit, but the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, for comparison, draws millions of people a year.

That’s a concern for Rob Newberry, the chairman of Delmarva Fisheries, an organization representing watermen across the peninsula. He cited a January report card from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which gave the Bay’s health its biannual grade: D+.

“The Bay is in such a critical state right now, and we want to make it a national park with more people? If anything, we need less,” he said. “That is the important thing they have to look at: the impact on oysters, crabs, fish and water quality.”

Van Hollen’s press office responded to environmental concerns, explaining that an increase of tourism would have little negative impact on the watershed because park-based activities such as kayaking and hiking have small footprints.

“Overall, a goal of the CNRA is to increase education and understanding of the natural resources of the Bay and the need for environmental stewardship of this treasure,” the statement said. “Additionally, the CNRA will bring more federal funding to the conservation and preservation of the Bay.”

Perry from Chesapeake Conservancy said establishing a CRNA could have a positive impact on the Bay’s health because NPS employees “are experts at protecting nature” and a park could inspire more conservation efforts similar to restoration movements that began in the ‘80s.

“The Bay would be in absolutely terrible shape now, but fortunately we had amazing restoration movements and an ecosystem of partners,” he said. “We still have a long way to go, and telling the story of the movement will inspire the next generation of conservation stewards.”

But Newberry called for a feasibility study to examine the environmental impact from a newfound park.

“A feasibility study takes into consideration the environment and the cost of protecting the environment,” he said, explaining “99% of the watermen in the state don’t want the Bay turned into a recreational park” because of environmental concerns — such as protecting the oyster population, which has been decimated in the estuary.

The roots of the CRNA stretch back to 1984, when Reagan called the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure. In 1986, Annapolis-based newspaper Capital Gazette sparked a full-fledged push for a CRNA when it wrote an editorial with the headline: “Chesapeake Bay National Park is good idea.”

In 1998 the Gateways program was created, and in 2004, the NPS laid down the foundation for a national park in a special resource study. President Barrack Obama called the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure in 2009.

According to Perry, a CRNA gained momentum after Van Hollen and Sarbanes met informally to flesh out the idea, and after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan wrote a letter to Van Hollen in September 2020, specifically asking for the CRNA.

“I believe the Chesapeake Bay is as grand as the Grand Canyon and as great as the Great Smokies,” he wrote, “and should be included in a new federal-state partnership.”

Hogan also cited the economic boost from a national park, explaining it would generate millions of dollars in the state’s economy. In Maryland and Virginia, national parks already generate more than $1 billion.

A national park would be federally funded but also self-funding, with recreational fees and other service charges common in national parks. It would also get private donations from foundations such as Chesapeake Conservancy.

Perry said a potential CRNA wouldn’t be too costly. An apt comparison would be the Mississippi River’s National River and Recreation Area, he said, which has a budget of $1.7 million and 24 total staff.

The larger goal of the CRNA is to tell a story about the rich history of the Chesapeake Bay and the people who live and have lived along it, and conservationists say the Eastern Shore plays a huge part in that.

Among the stories that would be told: the Chesapeake Bay area Native Americans, including the Powhatan, the Piscataway and the Nanticoke; the local watermen; the restoration effort to save the Bay; and even the historic African-American communities that sprung up alongside the estuary, such as Easton’s The Hill, the first free African-American community in the country.

“There can be no Chesapeake Recreational Area without meaningful connection to the Eastern Shore — which is representative of the Bay’s natural resources and heritage,” said Perry.

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