By Shifra Dayak, Capital News Service
The Chesapeake Bay could see a boost in status under legislation introduced this summer to designate the region as a National Recreation Area.
Sponsored by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, and Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, the Chesapeake National Recreation Area Act would allow the National Park Service to bring into its network sites in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which covers over 60,000 square miles across six states and Washington, D.C. Sites would be included either through donations or purchases, but the new designation would not affect the rights of other property owners along the watershed.
“We know that the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and it’s a global treasure,” Van Hollen said in an interview with Capital News Service. “We believe that by including this national treasure within the National Park Service system, we will ensure that it is protected in the future.”
Efforts to establish a Chesapeake National Recreation Area date back to the 2000s, when a study called for the bay to become a unit of the National Park Service. This year’s legislation also comes amid attempts to mitigate the declining health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and efforts to highlight lesser-known parts of bay history, including the contributions of Native Americans and Black watermen to the ecosystem and economy.
The bill was created through a “unique process,” Van Hollen said. In 2021, in a practice uncommon among most lawmakers, he and Sarbanes created a working group to solicit feedback on what the legislation should look like.
The bill is currently in committee but Van Hollen said a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is “determined to get it over the finish line” by the end of this congressional session.
Currently, the park service administers certain sites in the watershed, including those designated as national monument units. The Chesapeake Gateways program, established through federal legislation in 1998, allows the park service to partner with and provide assistance to local and regional organizations involved in the bay.
But lawmakers are calling for the park service to play a larger and more administerial role, especially as they strive to tell previously-untold stories about the watershed’s inhabitants.
“Right now, there’s no entity whose mission is to help tell the stories of the Chesapeake Bay,” Van Hollen said. “If you look at the Chesapeake Bay, in many ways, its history is a microcosm of our American history… so there are all sorts of stories.”
For Maryland residents like Vincent Leggett, whose families have been involved in those stories for generations as avid fishermen, shipbuilders and dockworkers, the bill offers the promise of highlighting history that’s previously been passed over.
Leggett is a member of Blacks of the Chesapeake — an organization that aims to highlight Black history in the watershed — which was part of the working group for the bill.
“African Americans, I feel, were the backbone to the maritime and seafood industries here in the Chesapeake Bay region, but our stories were not elevated, nor were they exposed through our own voices,” Leggett said.
Leggett hopes that expanding the reach of the park service in the region will also draw these populations into bay conservation. Only 7% of the state’s bay shoreline is publicly accessible, he said, causing a “sense of alienation” for people of color in the region who can’t get involved in cleanup efforts.
According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, the main entity responsible for conservation and restoration of the bay, there are 1,296 public access points to the body of water across its six watershed states and Washington, D.C.
The bill, if passed, would authorize the park service to administer additional landmarks in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — a step Van Hollen said would further improve public access to the bay.
Blacks of the Chesapeake has worked with state and federal lawmakers in Maryland on several projects along the bay, Leggett said, including planning a heritage park at the historically-Black Elktonia Beach in Annapolis and ensuring that Black history is highlighted at Whitehall Manor, which was built by enslaved individuals. Some of these sites, if acquired by the park service, could become highlights of a Chesapeake National Recreation Area.
The bill’s sponsors also touted the legislation as an opportunity to create jobs and enhance Maryland’s economy.
“By designating a unified National Recreation Area for the Chesapeake Bay, this legislation seeks to elevate the regional stories that shaped our nation’s history, promote the spirit of stewardship, improve public access and spur economic growth across the bay region,” Sarbanes said in an e-mail to CNS.
The lawmakers have projected that turning the watershed into a park service unit will boost tourism in the region, augmenting its already-major role in the bay states’ economies. In Maryland, recreational boating generates an average of $2.03 billion and 32,025 jobs each year, and wildlife-watching excursions generate over $600 million a year, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Leggett said that the bill is an opportunity to foster these industries while increasing awareness of the bay’s integral role in the region.
“I think that by bringing more attention to the Chesapeake Bay… it just generates so many millions of dollars and employment opportunities and tourism,” he said. “I think that as we endeavor to improve the water quality of the bay, that is going to enhance the fisheries, it is going to enhance heritage tourism and all of the related businesses that surround it.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that sites would be included through sales or donations and that the new designation would not affect other property owners’ rights.