November 14, 2022

Chesapeake Bay could become national recreation area

Members of Maryland’s congressional delegation back the federal designation, which would knit together and highlight key places of interest around the bay

The Chesapeake Bay would join the list of America’s most treasured parks and natural landscapes under a measure backed by two members of Congress to designate the nation’s largest estuary as a national recreation area.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. John Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats, said Monday they intend to introduce legislation in the next Congress that would incorporate the bay into the nation’s park system and elevate its status as one of the nation’s most important landscapes, thus easing the way toward obtaining steady federal funding to conserve the body of water, promote tourism and expand public access within its 64,000 square miles of watershed.

It would also set in motion an ambitious plan to knit together and highlight key places of interest around the bay — such as a 19th-century watermen’s house in Annapolis or a spit of land in Hampton, Va., where enslaved Africans first arrived by boat in colonial America — as public embarkation points to explore the bay’s cultural, historical and ecological riches.

Van Hollen, quoting an early proponent of the idea, envisioned the land-based circle of destinations as “a string of pearls that will tie key areas of the Bay watershed together.”

If anything, the proposed national recognition of the bay’s importance and its impact on American history is long overdue, said Joel Dunn, president and chief executive of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

“This place, the Chesapeake, is the birthplace of American identity,” Dunn said. “It’s just as spectacular as Yellowstone or Yosemite, and it’s as great as the Great Smokies or as grand as the Grand Tetons. ... But, despite all that amazing nature, culture and history, it’s not represented in the park system.”

Van Hollen said in an interview that the initiative has been decades in the making, and it approached reality over the past couple of years as representatives from more than 30 organizations, including Virginia’s congressional delegation, state officials and nonprofits, laid down guiding principles for federal legislation.

Among other things, the group wanted to ensure that the effort would highlight the bay’s connection to Indigenous peoples and previously marginalized histories such as the impact and legacy of slavery. The proposed legislation also directs the federal government to promote more equitable public access to the bay for the future.

While the designation would make it easier to acquire additional properties to widen public access to the bay, the lawmakers emphasized that such expansion would be on a voluntary basis, not by condemnation through eminent domain. They also said that listing the bay as a national recreation area would not lead to tighter regulations or restrictions on commercial activity or recreation, but could instead help to promote tourism and the area’s commercial prospects.

“It’s a way to introduce ourselves to the world,” said Johnny Shockley, a third-generation waterman whose life embodies the transition from backbreaking work hauling oysters from the bay to cultivating them using high-tech and sustainable methods. He hopes the designation will showcase the bay and its rise as a commercial powerhouse following the Civil War that supplied the nation with oysters and crabs, while also helping to marshal private and federal resources to reclaim waters that were damaged and depleted by that industry.

“The infrastructure that we used to get them out, we need now to build infrastructure to get them back,” said Shockley, of Dorchester County.

The National Park Service would assume more authority over the area but would not supersede state powers. The Park Service would, however, be able to identify and absorb additional properties into the park on a voluntary basis or enter into agreements to jointly manage sites belonging to states, local jurisdictions or nonprofits.

“So baked into this is a very collaborative process for how the national recreation area will evolve over time,” Sarbanes said in an interview, adding that the proposal builds on the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network that’s been in place since 2000. Under that initiative, the Interior Department has helped assemble a network of more than 300 places, including parks, museums or other places in the Chesapeake watershed that are devoted to interpreting, conserving or promoting the bay.

“I think the Chesapeake National Recreation Area is just a terrific way to kind of take that appreciation to the next level,” Sarbanes said. He said the draft legislation — which has been shaped by representatives from organizations as diverse as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the American Sportfishing Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Latino Outdoors and Maryland watermen — will be open to public review and comment for 90 days.

The federal classification of public lands includes more than two dozen categories, ranging from national parks and national memorials to national refuges and national battlefield sites, but all are considered parks. The Park Services’s website lists 18 national recreation areas — which are managed by the Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service and tend to be focused on bodies of water — including the Delaware Water Gap, which straddles the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey; Glen Canyon, which encompasses Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah; and Lake Mead, the nation’s largest and oldest national recreation area, in Arizona and Nevada.

The Chesapeake Bay became the gateway for European explorers who established the first permanent English-speaking colony in North America at Jamestown. It was fundamental to the rise of the Maryland and Virginia colonies, and the setting for two profoundly contradictory events in the origin of American democracy. The House of Burgesses, which convened in July 1619, would become the Virginia General Assembly and the oldest continuous legislative body in the Americas. Weeks later, the first enslaved people would arrive in a privateer’s ship at Point Comfort.

The idea of including the Chesapeake Bay in the nation’s park system goes back at least to the 1980s and then-Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer, whose early efforts got a boost from the Capital newspaper’s editorial board in 1986.

“The idea is for a Chesapeake Bay National Park to be formed from out of many bits and pieces of county, state and federal land along the bay in all the states that share the bay — primarily Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania,” the editorial says.

The draft legislation by Van Hollen and others identifies four key sites that the Park Service would be authorized to acquire through donation or voluntary sale: Burtis House, a waterman’s residence built around 1880 in the City Dock area of downtown Annapolis and most recently was home to the National Sailing Hall of Fame; Whitehall Manor, which was built in 1746 and occupied by Maryland’s last provincial governor, Horatio Sharpe; the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, a rare “screw-pile” structure that looks like a cottage on stilts that was erected in 1875; and 122 acres of Fort Monroe’s North Beach, where ships delivered enslaved Africans in 1619.

“It is, as you know, a treasure not just for this region but for the country and world,” Van Hollen said. “And we need to both preserve and protect it, but also ensure that those who make their livelihood from the bay have a prosperous future. And I think this will combine those important goals.”


By:  Fredrick Kunkle
Source: The Washington Post