Chesapeake National Recreation Area FAQ's

Q: What is the goal of establishing the CNRA?

A: The primary goals of the CNRA are to highlight the diverse landscape and historic significance of the Chesapeake Bay while providing ecological, cultural, and economic benefits to the region. The CNRA will support the Bay, and the people who live in and visit its watershed. A unified NPS designation will provide an opportunity to help conserve certain cultural, historic, and natural resources in the Bay, improve public access to it, deliver additional federal resources to the region and spur economic growth and prosperity across the watershed. This commitment is reflected in in the guiding principles, and a complete list of the CNRA goals may be found in Section 3 of the legislative text, entitled “Purposes.” 

Q: Where did this idea come from?

A: The concept of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area has been discussed as far back as the 1980s, spurred by an op-ed in the Capital Gazette and work by Anne Arundel County Executive Jim Lighthizer and followed in the 1990s by the efforts of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Driven by Senator Sarbanes, in 2004, the National Park Service (NPS) released a special resource study which found that the Chesapeake Bay is "unquestionably nationally significant and a major part of the nation's heritage." Shortly after his election to the Senate, Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes began discussing the possibility of a designated Chesapeake National Recreation Area. In 2019, the lawmakers began working on the effort requesting drafting service from NPS to pursue a national recreation area designation for the Chesapeake Bay. The effort has garnered widespread bipartisan support, and in 2020, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam shared their backing of the concept in letters to Congress. Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes continued to pursue the effort, and in 2021 formally announced a working group to foster further discussion with stakeholders and community members on the project. Then in June 2022, the lawmakers released a set of guiding principles to serve as a foundation for the proposal. The release of the discussion draft for comment in November 2022 was the next significant milestone in this historic process.

Q: What is a “National Recreation Area” and why does it make sense for the Chesapeake?

A: National Recreation Area (NRA) is a designation for a National Park Service (NPS) unit selected for lands near large bodies of water that offer visitors a chance to experience water-based outdoor activities – from swimming and kayaking to fishing and boating. These recreation areas also often include important natural and cultural features. Examples of similar NRAs that link multiple sites and are currently managed by NPS include the Boston Harbor Islands NRA in Massachusetts, the Gateway NRA in New York and New Jersey, and the Golden Gate NRA in California. NRAs also provide NPS with the ability to partner with eligible entities (including State, local, and tribal governments, private nonprofit organizations, and private landowners) to include partner sites in the CNRA, thus increasing flexibility for participating sites.

Q: In what ways will CNRA’s increased public access to the Chesapeake Bay benefit residents and visitors to the region?

A: The CNRA will offer recreational, educational, and stewardship opportunities for everyone, especially those who have traditionally lacked access to the Bay. Additionally, increased tourism will benefit local economies; NPS reports that visitors spent $20.5 billion in local gateway regions while visiting national park sites in 2021. 

Q: How will the CNRA advance Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice in the Chesapeake Bay watershed? 

A: The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to numerous cultural heritage sites that tell the story of our nation’s inception and the CNRA will highlight the stories that often go untold – those of Indigenous peoples, free and enslaved Blacks, and watermen and women who’ve all played a vital role in the economic success and health of the Bay region. While there’s certainly a diverse cultural history of the Bay, many urban and rural residents, underinvested communities, and communities of color lack access to the Bay today. That’s why the CNRA will also prioritize expanding access and engagement for all locals and visitors to the watershed.  This commitment is reflected in #6 of the CNRA’s guiding principles, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and will allow everyone who visits to learn more about themselves as they learn more about the Bay.

Q: Since the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed are so expansive, why are the only sites proposed for initial inclusion in the CNRA in Annapolis, MD and Hampton, VA?

A: The legislative text and map would establish the CNRA with four initial sites spread over two “hubs” at opposite ends of the Bay; Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, and Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, Whitehall, and Burtis House in the Annapolis, Maryland region. These initial sites exhibit the cultural, historic, environmental, and recreational value the CNRA is designed to elevate and are all listed on the National Historic Register. Furthermore, the owners or managers of these sites have all expressed interest in being included as initial sites in the CNRA, a critical aspect of their inclusion as all participation in the CNRA is voluntary. Eventually, the CNRA is envisioned to extend this “string of pearls” to include other sites across the watershed, elevating the recreational experience for residents and visitors across the Bay watershed. 

Q: What other sites are under consideration for inclusion in the CNRA?

A:  Currently the sites being considered for inclusion in the CNRA are those shown on the map. After the CNRA is established, new sites could be added by the Secretary of the Interior in consultation with the Citizen Advisory Commission, which will be responsible for developing criteria in partnership with NPS for additional sites. Some individuals and groups have expressed interest in including sites besides those noted on the map in the processes of establishing the CNRA; however, the owners and managers of such sites have not volunteered to include those sites as part of the CNRA. 

Q: Will NPS own all the CNRA sites?

A: Not necessarily. The legislative text distinguishes two voluntary processes for adding CNRA sites – acquisition of land or land-based resources by NPS, or partner site agreements between NPS and an eligible entity. The former would be a formal NPS acquisition available for a limited scope of sites that meet specific criteria, where NPS becomes responsible for the site in its entirety. The latter would be a cooperative management agreement, tailored to the needs of each site, that allows NPS to include the partner site in the CNRA but retains the site’s ownership and provides the site’s owner or manager with agreed-upon terms for partner site agreements. 

Q: Will this allow the federal government to seize private lands for inclusion in the CNRA?

A: No. The legislative text explicitly prohibits this, stating that CNRA sites and land-based resources may only be acquired for NPS by “donation, purchase from a willing seller […], exchange or transfer from another federal agency.”The text further states, “[n]o land or interest in land may be acquired for the Recreation Area by condemnation unless the owner of the applicable land or interest in land consents to the condemnation.”Similarly, partner site or cooperative management agreements, where existing ownership is maintained, are entirely “opt-in” on the part of site owners or managers. These provisions are reflected in #3 of the CNRA guiding principles, titled “Respect Land Rights”.  

Q: Will the establishment of the CNRA impact water and water-navigation rights or give NPS additional authority over the water near the CNRA sites?

A: No. The legislative text explicitly prohibits this, stating “[n]othing in this Act impacts or otherwise affects statutory or regulatory authority with respect to navigation or regulation of commercial or recreational fishing activities or shellfish aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay or tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.” Therefore, NPS will have no additional authority over activities on the water. NPS authority in this text does not extend beyond the boundaries of these land-based sites, so boaters and fishers will not be subject to any additional federal regulation.

Q: Will the public continue to have an influence on the establishment and management of the CNRA after the legislation is passed?

A: Yes, explicitly so. The establishing legislation is informed by the CNRA working group and public comment. After passage, the process of planning the CNRA will include significant and continued public input both from robust outreach in the NPS planning process and via the citizen representatives of the CNRA Advisory Commission, #10 of the CNRA guiding principles. The Advisory Commission will be responsible for advising the Secretary of the Interior on the development and implementation of the CNRA management plan as well as determining criteria and making recommendations for additional sites to be voluntarily added to the CNRA. In this way, continued stakeholder feedback will be the backbone of the CNRA’s development and management, and participation in the CNRA will ensure a net increase in long-term public involvement in how the sites are managed. The initial public comment period on the draft legislation has also helped identify numerous communities and stakeholders for continued engagement. 

Q: What interests will be represented on the Advisory Commission?

A: As described in the legislative text, the 19 members of the CNRA Advisory Commission will consist of four representatives each from Maryland and Virginia with knowledge of environmental, recreational, cultural or historic resources, environmental justice, grassroots organizing, education, or interpretation; one representative each from Maryland and Virginia with knowledge of the agricultural interests of the Bay; one representative each from Maryland and Virginia with knowledge of the commercial fishing interests of the Bay; one youth representative each from Maryland and Virginia; two Tribal representatives from state and federally recognized Tribes that are traditionally associated with the Chesapeake Bay; one representative each selected by the Governors of Maryland and Virginia; and the Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. Many of these representatives will represent multiple groups of stakeholders; for instance, of the members appointed specifically as a youth representatives might also be a life-long recreational fisher and hunter, a first-hand recipient of environmental education, and pursuing a career in economic development. In this way, the Advisory Commission is intended to broadly reflect the vast array of experiences and interests of those living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

Q: What organizations are working with Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes on the CNRA proposal?

A: The CNRA working group was established in 2021 and collaborates with Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes through discussion of topics related to the CNRA proposal. The current working group is composed of representatives from more than three dozen organizations with broad perspective on recreational, environmental, and cultural topics relevant to the Bay, members of Congress from the region, and the owners or operators of the four proposed sites; a list of current working group members may be found on the CNRA Fact Sheet. Additionally, over 100 groups have also endorsed the CNRA. 

Q: Why hasn’t the National Park Service conducted transportation plans and community outreach sessions for these sites yet?

A: NPS needs Congressional direction to conduct studies on sites that could be added to the National Park System, so NPS studies at the proposed CNRA sites can only happen after the CNRA legislation passes. Title 54 of the U.S. Code explicitly states “[n]o study of the potential of an area for inclusion in the System may be initiated except as provided by specific authorization of an Act of Congress.” Therefore, the CNRA legislation is what authorizes NPS to begin their extensive planning process.

Q: What sorts of planning will have to take place before the CNRA becomes a reality?

A: Extensive studies and outreach are legally mandated as part of the well-established NPS planning process. The planning and management of each NPS unit is unique and a General Management Plan typically takes between one to three years to develop. The CNRA legislation specifically states that management plan will be created within 3 years of funds being made available for the preparation and management of the CNRA. Aspects of this process that will be particularly important for the CNRA include transportation plans, natural resource management plans, park maintenance plans, visitor use plans, and more. In addition, the legislative text specifically requires NPS to “conduct transportation planning [...] with respect to the initial sites depicted on the Map, to minimize traffic burden on the surrounding community." The goal of this planning portfolio is to create site-specific resource and visitor use management plans that will be a logical, trackable guide for future park management actions. Thus, the CNRA will be designed and implemented around what makes sense for both its sites and the people who live nearby or visit them.

Q: How will the CNRA impact traffic?

A: Traffic concerns are front-of-mind with a new NPS unit, particularly those established in populated areas, as would be the case in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The CNRA legislation directs NPS to create a Transportation Plan, which typically takes between six months to two years to develop as part of the planning process. Included in this is Active Transportation Planning Assistance, which provides professional transportation planning support and technical assistance for partnership and capacity building, particularly for efforts that reach outside NPS boundaries. This will help ensure that the CNRA can identify and engage partners and stakeholders, evaluate constraints, and/or develop collaborative action plans to coordinate CNRA and partners’ commitments to establishing the unit.

Q: What kind of infrastructure changes will happen within the CNRA site boundaries on the NPS map upon passing the CNRA legislation?

A: The exact nature of infrastructure improvement and changes within CNRA sites will be up to NPS and the owners or managers of sites, who will make these decisions in a manner that accommodates public access while preserving the historic, cultural, and environmental integrity of each individual site. The legislation also requires NPS to acquire or partner with a property to act as visitor centers by donation or from a willing seller and authorizes NPS to provide matching funds to partner sites based on mutually agreed upon terms, which could be used for refurbishment or preservation of the sites. 

Q: Are there any examples of existing NPS units that have used alternative or limited public access options to meet the specific needs of a site?

A: Each NPS unit is unique, which is why the NPS planning process is so extensive, but several examples of NPS sites that have some similarities with facets of the proposed CNRA sites include:

  • Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site in California, which is located on a privately owned and gated road. Access via the road is only available through advanced registration for NPS shuttle.
  • Fort Sumter in South Carolina is only accessible by water via a ferry. The ferry has a limited number of trips per day and passengers per trip.
  • Like Fort Sumter, Alcatraz Island, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California, is only accessible in person by water via a ferry. The ferry has a limited number of trips per day and passengers per trip; however, NPS also offers options to visit the site virtually.

Q: Will increased tourism from the CNRA damage the Chesapeake Bay’s natural and cultural resources?

A: One of the primary goals of the CNRA is to preserve, protect, and elevate the natural and cultural resources of the Chesapeake Bay, so ensuring that the CNRA is not damaging to the environment or communities is critically important. NPS’ mission is to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.

NPS and its partners will bring these world-class conservation and interpretation services to the Chesapeake Bay. The CNRA planning process, for instance, can include a Resource Stewardship Strategy, which typically takes about a year to develop and will evaluate the CNRA’s priority resources and create a comprehensive strategic plan to protect them over time. The commitment to protecting the Chesapeake through the CNRA is reflected in #1, #5, #8 and #9 of the CNRA guiding principles

Q: What opportunities have there been for public feedback and how are concerns raised by the public being addressed?

A: Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes released the legislative text and map for the CNRA on November 14, 2022 and invited stakeholder feedback on the proposal for an initial three-month period that was extended to more than five months due to strong public interest. The legislators’ offices have also held listening sessions with groups like local elected officials, neighborhood community organizations, and interested parties across the watershed. Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes worked with the CNRA Working Group to review the feedback they received from all sources and made a number of changes to the legislative text to address concerns and suggestions that were presented. The one-page summary shows the changes between the discussion draft and the legislation as it was introduced in Congress. Finally, the extensive NPS planning process will prioritize public outreach and input even after the bill passes Congress.

Q: What are the next steps after the CNRA legislation is introduced in Congress?

A: Following the public comment period and subsequent revisions to the draft legislative text, Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes formally introduced the legislation in Congress on July 27, 2023. This is just the beginning of the process, however – once the legislation is eventually passed and signed into law, the CNRA Advisory Commission will be established and NPS will begin its multi-year public engagement process to create the NPS planning documents that will inform how the park is operated for decades to come. Those interested in the CNRA may visit to learn more and follow updates.