Paddling past Boulder Beach in Vermont's Groton State Forest last summer, I heard a little boy shout to his buddy as they splashed in the lake: "This is better than TV." "This is better than TV," he yelled again, affirming his conviction.
It brought a huge smile to my face. Some of the fondest memories of my youth are of times spent with family and friends at a beach, along a river or stream or the pond near my home. I played in the water, hunted for tadpoles and other critters, swam, boated or tried to hook a fish.
These experiences helped shape my lifelong concern and career's work in protecting the environment. Even today, communing with nature through water-based activities is one of the things I most cherish.
In Vermont, public access to the state's waterways is pretty good. It is protected and promoted in state law. There are lots of places where people can engage in all of these water activities.
Here in the Chesapeake, it is not so good, as any paddler looking for a place to rest after a long day of kayaking, or any child or adult looking for a nearby place to jump in the water on a hot summer day, can tell you. Despite improvements and expansion in the number of access points over the last 25 years — mostly boat ramps and fishing spots — only 2 percent of the Chesapeake's 11,600 miles of tidal shoreline is publicly accessible. There are huge gaps in access along the Bay's mainstem and tributaries and, where access exists, activities like swimming, camping and even fishing are often prohibited, even on lands in the public domain.
The consequence of all these restrictions is not just lost recreational and related economic/tourism opportunities. It is also a public that is not only largely disconnected from the Chesapeake and its great waterways but also the reasons why we have spent so much time, money and effort trying to clean up the watershed.
The 1987 Bay Agreement set a very laudable public access goal of promoting "increased opportunities for public appreciation and enjoyment of the Bay and its tributaries." It called for all levels of government — federal, state and local — to intensify efforts to expand and improve public access opportunities such as public beaches, parks and forested lands, fishing and securing more shoreline acreage. But it didn't contain any measurable outcomes to achieve the goal other than developing a public access strategy and guide to access facilities.
The Chesapeake 2000 agreement established more concrete numerical targets for improving access — targets that were achieved — but it set a much lower bar than the vision of the 1987 agreement by focusing on the expansion of access "points" and interpretation of those "points."
Now a new plan released in July by the National Park Service in collaboration with the watershed's states and the District of Columbia seeks to identify more than 300 new potential public access sites by 2025. To its great credit, the accompanying report highlights the need, public demands for and benefits of expanded access opportunities. It contains 12 solid policy and planning recommendations for moving forward — recommendations that can be built upon. These include: making funding for public access a priority; filling strategic gaps in access along water trails; exploring options for additional public access on public lands and in urban areas; building opportunities for citizen stewardship; and addressing accessibility needs. It attempts to inventory all of the existing public access to rivers, streams and bays in the watershed — the first time such an effort has been undertaken.
But where I think it continues to miss the boat is in what it considers "access." Access must be more than a point, more than a new boat ramp or fishing pier; it should be a quality experience.
Don't get me wrong. We need more boat ramps and fishing piers, but we also need more places to swim, more landings for kayaks and canoes, and more places to camp along the watershed's shorelines. And we need more places like Boulder Beach in Vermont, or First Landing, Westmoreland, Point Lookout and Elk Neck state parks in the Chesapeake, where residents and visitors can engage in the full range of water-based activities. Those places are few and far between.
Of the 316 potential new access sites identified in the plan, only 6 percent would have swimming as a possible activity. Despite noting the strong demand for camping among the paddling public, no potential new shoreline camping sites were identified; camping and related water-to-land access was considered beyond the plan's scope.
And perhaps more troubling, the plan now considers "viewing" as access. Thirty-nine percent of the proposed new access sites would have "viewing" as an activity.
I wonder if that little boy at Boulder Beach would have the same reaction — this is better than TV — if all he could do is look at the lake, not swim, splash, play in the water or camp on its shorelines. I think not.