August 08, 2023

Editorial: Proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area would benefit Hampton Roads

Hampton Roads boasts one of America’s best-kept historical secrets in Fort Monroe, a location of extraordinary importance in the nation’s complicated story but one unfamiliar to much of the country. The Chesapeake Bay, another of the region’s jewels, is far better known, though one at risk due to pollution.

A proposal to develop a Chesapeake National Recreation Area could change that, raising the fort’s profile and directing more federal funding toward bay protection and preservation. It’s a promising initiative for Hampton Roads and one that deserves the region’s full-throated support.

Protecting and promoting Fort Monroe should be one of this region’s top priorities. Rich in history, Point Comfort, where the fort is located, was the place where the first enslaved Africans set foot in North America, and it was to the fort where freed slaves found refuge during the Civil War, protected by Union forces in the surrounding areas.

There is so much more to the story, as visitors to the fort and the Casemate Museum there can attest. But while many visitors to the region surely know about the Jamestown settlement, the Yorktown battlefield and Colonial Williamsburg, Fort Monroe isn’t part of the American lexicon in the way it deserves to be.

Similarly, Hampton Roads — indeed, all of the states and communities in the watershed — have a vested interest in the health and preservation of the Chesapeake Bay. From the oystermen and anglers who make their living working the waters to the boaters, canoers and others who flock there for relaxation and enjoyment, the bay is a centerpiece of the region and a driver of the regional economy.

The Chesapeake National Recreation Area proposes to link those two things — the bay and the fort — along with other historical and recreational properties throughout the area under the common umbrella of “National Recreation Area” designation. That’s a term for land and sites placed by Congress under the direction of a federal agency, in this case the National Park Service.

Introduced last month by two members of Maryland’s congressional delegation — Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. John Sarbanes — the CNRA “unified national recreation area … would provide more federal resources to the watershed region to celebrate its diverse cultural and economic history, conserve this environmental treasure, and foster public access to the Chesapeake Bay while spurring economic growth.”

The lawmakers have been deliberate and thorough in preparing this legislation, which comes after a six-month comment period on a draft bill. The CNRA intends to link sites and land already under NPS direction, with others acquired voluntarily as partner sites.

That includes about 122 acres of Fort Monroe’s north beach area and three sites in Maryland: the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, built in 1875; the Burtis House, one of the only remaining waterman homes remaining in Annapolis; and Whitehall, a manor house in Anne Arundel County that was home to Maryland’s colonial governor.

Important, too, is what the legislation does not do. It would not allow the NPS to impose additional boating or fishing restrictions on the area, or infringe on state-level fish and wildlife management efforts. And the federal government will not purchase land from unwilling sellers; the CNRA is, again, based on voluntary participation.

What it may do — what sponsors, stakeholders and area residents should hope it can do — is boost efforts to manage and protect the Chesapeake Bay, highlighting the many ways in which it affects the lives of those living in the watershed. And it should put additional spotlight on Fort Monroe, raising its profile and opening the door for more Americans to learn about its historical significance.

Virginia’s Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, along with Reps. Rob Wittman and Bobby Scott, support the proposal, as do many of the groups and organizations that work on tourism, historical preservation and bay protection, along with those who want to make sure commerce driven by the bay is also protected.

The CNRA offers a promising opportunity to highlight two stars of our region —the fort and the bay — and Hampton Roads stands to benefit from its passage.

By:  The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press Editorial Board
Source: The Virginian-Pilot