The National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which had already received a sharp budget cut this year, has been out of money altogether since Oct. 1, when the federal government’s new fiscal year began.

Supporters of the network, which provides the park service’s main link with the Chesapeake, are battling to get Congress to restore funds when it returns in mid-November.

“Every year the Gateways Network has been in existence, we have had to go back to Congress and literally fight for our funding,” said Marci Ross, assistant director of the Maryland Office of Tourism, who serves on the Gateways Network Working Group, which offers advice on the program.

“But this is the first year that I ever felt as if we were really going to have to put up a huge and organized fight for the funding,” she added. “I also believe, though, that it will come through. It is harder now.”

Congress failed to pass appropriation bills to finance most federal agencies before it recessed for elections. Instead, it passed a continuing resolution that provided funding for federal programs at whichever level was lowest: the House-passed appropriations for the 2007 fiscal year or the actual 2006 level.

For the Gateways Network, the lowest funding was in the House-approved appropriation bill, which included no money for the program for the second year in a row. As a result, the network has been broke since Oct. 1.

Congress is scheduled to return in mid-November, after elections, but it’s unclear whether lawmakers will finish making appropriations or simply pass another continuing resolution until the new Congress convenes in January.

“Right now, it doesn’t look positive,” said Charlie Stek, an aide to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, who was instrumental in passing legislation that created the network in 1998.

Legislation is pending in the Senate that would provide $1.625 million for the network, but has not been acted upon. Once the Senate passes a bill, the differences between its funding level and the House version would have to be worked out in a conference committee—although that could be sidestepped by another continuing resolution.

The Gateways Network, which was formally launched in 2000, consists of 152 state or federal parks, wildlife refuges, historical sites, museums, public access and other locations that serve as “gateways” for people to access or experience the Chesapeake. The network also includes 22 water trails covering more than 1,500 miles of the Bay and its tributaries.

The sites and water trails span from New York and West Virginia to the mouth of the Bay. Each gateway helps visitors experience a portion of the Bay’s natural, historic or cultural heritage. When taken as a whole, the network is intended to provide visitors with a broad understanding of the Bay and how it has influenced human activities and, in turn, been affected by humans.

One goal of the network is turning that appreciation into support for Bay restoration efforts. “In order for people to understand the importance of the Bay, they have to be able to connect with it,” Ross said. “If people can’t touch it, and feel it and experience it directly, they don’t have the same connection.”

It’s estimated that more than 10 million people a year visit gateways sites.

The park service—with input from a working group representing state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and others—coordinates the network of locally managed sites and provides grants and technical support to help each tell its Bay-related story.

The park service also develops materials such as brochures and a website for the network, which helps to link sites that range from major attractions such as the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News to small sites with their own stories, such as the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia and the Adkins Arboretum on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“It was a creative vision for the park service,” said Ellie Altman, executive director of the Adkins Arboretum. “Instead of creating a new park for this region, it took existing facilities and worked to strengthen their ability as a collective of parks and facilities to achieve the goals of the park service.”

In 2005, the Bush administration touted the Gateways Network as a case study during its first conference on Cooperative Conservation, which promoted partnerships between government agencies, landowners and businesses to protect and restore the nation’s resources.

But the network is funded by the park service’s Statutory Aid program, which along with the service’s National Heritage Area program, has long been the target of criticism. The programs are intended to allow the park service to help preserve nationally significant natural and historical resources—without having to acquire and manage those resources itself—by providing seed money to local or regional organizations.

Altogether, the two programs provide about $25 million a year to more than three dozen areas or projects, and demand for more sites is growing. But critics say the sites supported by the program do not become self-supporting as was intended, and say the park service lacks criteria for the selection of heritage areas of statutory aid projects.

Critics of the Statutory Aid program further contend that the Park Service itself has described projects supported by the program as “secondary to the primary mission of the National Park Service.”

The White House, which did not include funding for the Gateways Network in its last two budget requests, has in policy statements encouraged Congress to terminate the entire Statutory Aid program. The House has also recommended the elimination of the program, and for the past two years followed the lead of the White House and eliminated funding for the Gateways Network.

“Some people in Congress just don’t believe the park service should be in the business of partnership building, or funding partnership programs,” Stek said.

Funding has continued because of support in the Senate. But lack of House support has let to a sharp decline in money approved in funding compromises between the two legislative chambers. In 2005, the program got $2.5 million—the most ever—but that was cut to $1.5 million in 2006.

Nonetheless, it is the largest single project in the park service’s Statutory Aid program. “We’ve become a big target,” Stek said.

To secure long-term funding, Sarbanes several years ago pushed for a study of a potential Chesapeake Bay National Park. After studying several alternatives, the park service in 2004 recommended that the Gateways Network become a permanent part of the National Park system, and that two visitor centers be created to help introduce people to the region. That recommendation has never been forwarded to Congress by the Department of the Interior, which oversees the park service.

This year’s funding dilemma is further complicated because it comes at a time when the Government Accountability Office is criticizing the park service’s oversight of the Gateways Network program. A report released in September said the completions of many projects funded through grants from the program were behind schedule, and the paperwork for many projects was lagging. The program made $6.2 million in grants for 189 projects from 2000 to 2005.

The report also said the park service lacked oversight procedures to ensure that grant projects were meeting the overall goals of the network. In addition, it criticized the program for not having published criteria for selecting gateways, or a process for identifying poorly performing gateway sites that could reflect poorly on the network.

A spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee said that the issues raised in the report were a major reason the committee chose not to fund the Gateways Network.

John Maounis, the park service director for the Gateways Network, said issues raised in the report were being addressed, and that all of the grants were on track to be completed by February. “We’ve responded and we are well along the way of completing the implementation of the various recommendations,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go, but we are well along the path.”

Ross said the park service brings more to the Gateways Network than grant money. States often compete for tourism, she said, and do not have the ability to reach across borders and coordinate a regionwide tourism program focused on the Bay without the park service. “If we could have, we would have,” she said.

The park service presence not only provides “overarching coordination,” but also brings technical assistance to individual gateways to help them emphasize and tell their Bay-related stories.

For instance, at Adkins Arboretum, a 400-acre preserve on Maryland’s Eastern Shore focused on preserving plants native to the Bay’s Coastal Plain, the park service has provided advice and funding for interpretive signs, a visitor map, audio tour, orientation video and other exhibits—all of which make links between the arboretum and the Bay, Altman said.

“It is pretty hard to find funding for those kinds of projects, and the gateways staff knows how important they are,” Altman said. “In addition to providing funding, they also have been able to provide the technical expertise to guide us through the development of those projects. It has also given us a network to be part of so we’re part of a larger marketing effort, which has been tremendously helpful.”

Besides helping with on-the-ground expertise, Ross said the park service heightens the credibility of the program. “To go into the market like that, as a partner with the National Park Service, gives us instant credibility because consumers have very high expectations of the national parks—and the areas affiliated with them,” Ross said.

The full impact of that partnership has not yet been felt, she said. So far, the network has largely been in a development phase, with much of the effort focused on providing technical assistance and grants to local sites to improve Bay access, install hundreds of interpretive signs and produce guides and other materials.

Although the park service has produced brochures linking all of the sites, major efforts to market the gateways effort, and measure results such as increased travel, have not yet begun, Ross said.

Even if funding is restored, Ross said a big fight still looms next year, as congressional authorization for the Gateways Network expires in 2008. “Next year, we have twice the battle,” she said. “But everyone seems to be braced and ready for this challenge because none of us want to give up on the Gateways Network.”

Ironically, questions about the future of the Gateways Network come at a time when efforts are advancing in Congress to establish a new John Smith National Historic Watertrail.

The proposed trail would retrace the Smith’s route through the Bay, and a park service plan released in late summer envisions the trail providing a water link to gateways sites, where travelers would learn more about Smith’s explorations.

“The network to some extent is a foundation for this proposed national historic trail,” Maounis said. “We have gateways throughout the watershed that are places that Smith either saw, or where he landed, and these are places that interpret that.”