December 23, 2022

Open up — and help clean up — the Chesapeake Bay

Federal, state and local governments have spent billions of dollars on the Chesapeake Bay in recent decades, especially since Congress enacted a stringent “pollution diet” in 2010 intended to clean up one of the world’s most magnificent and diverse estuaries. There has been measurable progress in the bay’s health — as well as foot-dragging that continues to endanger the cleanup. With a federally mandated deadline on the horizon in 2025, key environmental goals set by federal regulators are unlikely to be met by states in the bay’s watershed.

Alarm bells should be ringing, given the slippage in progress toward meeting pollution-reduction targets, with daunting long-term consequences for fisheries, including oysters, crabs, rockfish and other marine life. Urbanization and agriculture have been long-standing threats to the bay’s ecology; global warmingposes new dangers. Cleaning up the bay, says Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), is “like running up a down escalator. If you stop, the bay would die quickly — we need to run even faster to get to the top.”

The worry is that political inertia will take hold if the public turns apathetic in the face of the bay’s long slog toward restoration. That could allow the bay to backslide, leaving its waters a fetid and increasingly lifeless soup.

Mr. Van Hollen and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) have devised a shrewd way to augment existing cleanup efforts. The idea behind their draft legislation, which would incorporate a string of sites around the bay into the National Park Service system, has been discussed for a half-century, but theirs is the first bill in Congress. They seek to galvanize a constituency for rescuing the bay by making it accessible for many more Americans.

That would be a major step forward, for an oddity of the Chesapeake Bay is the disconnect between its vast scale and meager accessibility. The bay’s watershed encompasses 64,000 square miles and roughly 19 million people. Yet little of its shoreline — less than 10 percent, by most estimates — is publicly accessible.

Much of the land along the water is privately owned, often by individuals or families whose deeds are decades old. State and local parks in Maryland and Virginia and some other sites afford access to bits of the bay. But points of entry are scarce for people who lack property or boats on the water. Many who kayak, fish or swim in the bay have little choice but to park on patches of grass near bridges, which is dangerous and often illegal.

Under the Van Hollen-Sarbanes proposal, what advocates describe as an expandable daisy chain of existing and prospective sites around the bay would be laced together under the Park Service’s aegis. Dubbed the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, they would be anchored by visitor centers and other interpretive and recreational facilities. The portfolio of new sites owned or managed by the Park Service might be modest at the outset, prominently featuring Burtis House, a 19th-century watermen’s dwelling in downtown Annapolis; Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, on the bay just south of Annapolis; Whitehall Manor, a graceful estate on a peninsula just east of Annapolis; and the North Beach of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va., the spot, then known as Point Comfort, where the first enslaved Africans disembarked, in 1619, on what became U.S. shores.

Over time, the recreation area’s goal would be to add sites and properties that would voluntarily join or, by mutual agreement, be acquired by the Park Service. The proposal specifies that the recreation area would neither seize land nor infringe on private rights on land or water, including fisheries.

Long-term expansion is a plausible vision, given the prestige wielded by the Park Service, arguably the most popular federal agency. Plenty of individual, family and corporate landowners might be happy to be affiliated with it. Private giving could also augment the Park Service’s own programs.

An existing model is the highly successful Golden Gate National Recreation Areaaround San Francisco Bay. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, it connects three dozen sites, including museums, parks and conservation areas. They highlight hundreds of animal and plant species as well as the region’s historical potpourri: Indigenous cultures, Spanish colonialism, the Mexican Republic, the Gold Rush, San Francisco’s boom and the U.S. military’s presence.

The Chesapeake Bay boasts a heritage at least as rich and varied, covering six states and the District of Columbia. Indigenous tribes thrived there for centuries before Capt. John Smith took their names — the Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna, Wicomico and others — for many of the watershed’s major rivers when he explored the area in 1608. Watermen harvesting oysters, crabs and fish built a thriving industry starting in the 19th century. African American communities have long roots around the bay’s shores, including at Carr’s Beach, just south of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, which boomed as a resort and concert venue during Jim Crow. The American Revolution’s final major battle was at Yorktown, near the mouth of the bay, and the nearby U.S. Navy base in Hampton Roads is a mainstay in the country’s coastal defense. Yet there is no entity that tells this story as an integrated historical, cultural and ecological feature of the American landscape.

It wasn’t long ago that some museums in the area gave short shrift or entirely overlooked parts of that history. Even in this century, one distributed a brochure tracing the region’s settlements only to the early 1800s, in effect erasing Indigenous tribes.

The Park Service’s track record suggests it would do better — allowing more Americans to enjoy the bay’s wonders and, in the process, expand the constituency for cleaning it up.

By:  Editorial Board
Source: The Washington Post