The natural history of the Chesapeake Bay alone—how a meteor shaped it, the size of its watershed, its diverse fisheries, tributaries, wetlands, and islands—might justify the bay’s inclusion in the national park system, but if you add American and cultural history it seems almost by accident that there is no entity of the national park system that celebrates this unique and complex ecosystem.
That oversight could be corrected if Congress supports legislation now being drafted to establish a Chesapeake National Recreation Area. It’s a vision that has been in the works for a number of years and which, if fulfilled, would not only bring economic benefits to the Bay and its communities, but could also increase recreational access to its waters and could even help improve the health of those restoring water bodies and their fisheries, believes Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy.
“By the way, many presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have recognized the Chesapeake as a national treasure and emphasized that it is the largest estuary in our country,” Dunn said Monday afternoon after a press conference in Annapolis. Maryland, by US Senator Chris Van Hollen and US Representative John Sarbanes to announce the release of the draft measure for public comment. “But despite all this work and recognition, there is no entity of the national park system dedicated to the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake really is as spectacular as Yellowstone or Yosemite, or as grand as the Great Smokies, or as grand as the Grand Tetons. But despite all this and despite our natural, cultural and historical resources, it is not represented in the national park system.”
At almost 200 miles long, the bay is North America’s largest estuary and contains approximately 18 trillion gallons of water. Measure the watershed that feeds the bay — more than 100,000 rivers, streams, and creeks contribute water — and you come up with an area of approximately 64,000 square miles, or, as the National Park Service puts it, “about seven times the size of the state of New Zealand.” Hampshire.”
As Traveller Contributing editor Kim O’Connell pointed out in a 2021 article that the Chesapeake Bay has immense environmental and economic value. According to 2021 figures from the Chesapeake Bay Program, the bay is home to an estimated 282 million blue crabs, its most iconic symbol. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, it supports nearly 350 species of finfish and 173 species of shellfish, including striped bass, Atlantic menhaden, drum, mackerel, scallop, whelk, and scallops. About 500 million pounds of seafood is pulled from the bay and brought to market each year.
The bay also contains numerous cultural and historical sites, O’Connell noted, including those associated with indigenous peoples, free and enslaved black people, and mermen and women who depend on a healthy waterway for their livelihoods. This waterway already includes several national park units, including the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trailthe Werowocomco village square, Fort Monroe National Monumentand Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park.
The roots of US history lie deep in the Chesapeake area. America’s earliest colonial-era cities were located on or above the fall line of rivers ending in the Bay, including Richmond, Virginia, on the James River, Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the Rappahannock, Washington, DC, on the Potomac, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania the Susquehanna.
Today charming seaside towns are home to the working watermen who harvest blue crab, oysters and allis shad. And there are seemingly endless miles of water-assisted recreation. You can go boating, fishing or just cool off in a river or bay.
Although the bay is large, some 200 miles long, the entire area would not turn into an official national park. Rather, the draft law calls on the parking service to do so Acquire or partner with Burtis House, Whitehall Manor, Thomas Shoal Point Lighthouse and Fort Monroe’s North Beach by voluntary sale or donation to serve as initial sites within the proposed recreation area.
In addition, the park service would have the authority to acquire additional land or property by voluntary donation, purchase from a willing seller, barter or transfer from another agency in consultation with the recreation area, as well as the ability to make voluntary “opt-in” partner location and cooperative administrative arrangements with and provision of federal funding to state and local governments, tribal governments, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and private landowners who wish to become members of the unit.
Designating the bay as an NRA would not only bring under one roof the various units of the park system already scattered throughout the bay, but also pay more attention to threats to natural resources.
“The outdoor recreation industry in Chesapeake is very, very strong. So it drives our economy. When people depend on a resource for their livelihood,” Dunn said, “they tend to protect and conserve it and make sure that it still functions for them. I think a national recreation area that celebrates recreation and even commercial fishing will benefit those industries. But perhaps the larger, and perhaps more indirect, result is that all of this access it creates will create the next generation of Chesapeake Bay conservation and restoration professionals.”
Currently, the National Park Service operates an office in Chesapeake Bay that works to “connect people with experiences of the natural and cultural heritage of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers,” but the agency needs a larger and permanent office to accomplish that mission to advance said Dunn.
“She runs the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Program, which has been in existence for almost 25 years. And it’s a very successful program, but it’s not permanently authorized,” Dunn said. “It has to be re-approved every few years, and it doesn’t automatically get an approval. It must be endorsed every year. And the Park Service is also a partner in the Chesapeake Bay program, which strives to restore the Bay. But this is not a legal permit. This is an administrative permit. It’s really important that we codify the National Park Service in Chesapeake by creating a permanent entity.”
Among the impacts the office has had is the Chesapeake Storytellers Program, a joint venture between the Park Service and the Maryland Department of Commerce Bureau of Tourism. The idea, O’Connell said in her story from a year ago, is to connect visitors looking for authentic Chesapeake experiences with locals whose livelihoods depend on the bay, either by land or sea. The Storytellers program provides training and certifies guides as authorities in their respective fields – be it 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 become Bay Ambassadors so they could learn some of the storytelling techniques that traditional NPS rangers use,” Wendy O’Sullivan, Superintendent, NPS Chesapeake Bureau, which works with state and nonprofit groups like the Chesapeake Conservancy to promote conservation and tourism opportunities throughout the watershed, said at the time.
For Senator Van Hollen, naming the NRA would bring a number of benefits to the region.
“After years of working with our dedicated partners who value the bay and its bounty, we are proud to present a proposal that highlights its unique history and historical importance, creates more prosperity for those who make it a living, and encourages federal investment.” and encourage greater public access to the Bay’s beauties and cultural landmarks,” he said at Monday’s press conference. “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 around our.” To achieve goal, gain national recognition and greater opportunity for our Bay Area.”
Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, grew up near the bay and was the director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland. She sees the bay as the perfect complement to the park system.
“The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the world. Thousands of years of history and unique 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 their depths – including my own family, for decades. For many of us, the Chesapeake Bay means home.
“And we must all work together to protect this place that feels like home,” Pierno added. “Creating the Chesapeake National Recreation Area would protect this place to the utmost and expand public access so everyone can appreciate its distinctiveness. A new national park site would create recreational opportunities for residents and travelers throughout the region.”
For the time being, the vision is in the form of draft legislation. As proposed by the initiative, the Chesapeake National Recreation Area would “use a collection of partnerships with states, communities and private entities to highlight the diverse landscape and national importance of the Chesapeake Bay.”
As drafted, the law “would not impose any additional regulations on recreational or commercial activities in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, nor will the National Park Service agency supersede the state agency in these matters,” the politicians said. State parks and other public land entities within the area may choose to be considered part of the NRA.
While a change in party control of the House of Representatives from Democrats to Republicans could hamper the movement of legislation in that chamber, Dunn is confident the measure will garner bipartisan support when it is officially introduced next year.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s tremendous support for this idea. There’s a whole coalition of over 150 people across the watershed, community leaders, nonprofit leaders, elected officials, all strongly supporting this idea,” he said. “We did a public opinion poll in July, it was like 1,300 people, so quite a large 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 more details about the bill and comment on it on this page.