A pair of sizable spending bills passed by Congress in December contain great news for land conservation and public access in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The $1.1 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill for fiscal year 2015 contains $6 million for land conservation along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail in Virginia, funds that advocates say were a long time coming and are key to preserving cultural, historical and natural resources along the trail.
On the same day, Congress passed another bill that creates a new national park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in New York state. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland and the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in New York will be the first in the country honoring an African American woman.
“We are just so thrilled by this,” said Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, who has spent the last decade advocating for land conservation funding in the watershed.
“If we don’t protect these areas now, they will be lost forever. The time to protect these resources is now,” he said.
Dunn said garnering federal funding for such “large landscape” preservation projects, as they’re called, became more difficult when Congress agreed to a ban on the earmarks that had typically helped fund such projects in the past.
Dunn said the ban occurred about the same time as President Obama’s Executive Order in 2009 that declared the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure and set a goal of conserving 2 million more acres of land and creating 300 new public sites to provide access to the Chesapeake and its rivers.
“A lot of the land and water conservation money has gone out West,” where large swaths can be conserved for less money per acre in states like Montana, Dunn said.
U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and U.S. Reps. Rob Wittman and James Moran continued the effort on the Hill to convince Congress that East Coast land preservation is worth its often higher sticker price, especially when it preserves landscapes that are culturally, historically and ecologically significant for larger audiences.
Of the total funding in the omnibus bill, $4 million will go to the National Park Service to support the conservation of historic lands tied to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and the American Indian communities that lived along rivers in Virginia at the time of his exploration. Specific sites that will be protected are still subject to negotiations.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe earlier this year visited Werowocomoco, the former home of Powhatan, the Indian leader that held together a powerful confederacy of tribes. The governor discussed the National Park Service’s ability to purchase the privately owned lands in the future. The site was home to Powhatan’s dauaghter Pocahontas when the first English settlers, including Capt. John Smith, arrived in 1607 and settled Jamestown.
Funds also will go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve lands within the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge that are home to the largest concentration of bald eagles on the East Coast.
Dunn said these lands along the John Smith trail provide a “powerful juxtaposition” of how the Bay landscape has changed over the last 400 years. He’d like to see the trail, which is the nation’s first national historic water trail, used like the Appalachian National Scenic Trail as a framework to funnel continued large landscape conservation funds to the Chesapeake watershed.
“We think that if you can’t access the Chesapeake Bay and get out on its rivers because all the land is private, then the next generation is not going to vote for the Chesapeake or donate to it or give their careers to it,” Dunn said.
And, when it comes to recreation, nothing brings new audiences to historical and ecological sites quite like a national park.
The national parks commemorating Harriet Tubman’s life will unite and replace the national monument that Obama created in 2013 and the nearly complete Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Dorchester County, MD, where an expansive visitors center is already taking shape.
In Maryland, the national park will occupy 2,775 acres in Dorchester County, where the Park Service already owns 480 acres, 2,200 acres in Caroline County and 775 acres in Talbot County.
The lands include Tubman’s likely birthplace, a plantation where she worked as a young girl and the plantation from which she escaped slavery in 1849. Tubman later returned to Maryland and helped others escape to their freedom following the Underground Railroad.
The latest legislation gives the Park Service authority to acquire land within these boundaries with additional conservation funds and creates a line item in the president’s budget to fund staff and improvements at the park in the future.
The park is adjacent to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and will expand the protection of habitats that are key to migrating waterfowl in the region. The national park also promises to boost tourism, a major economic driver along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The New York park will include the site of Tubman’s home in Auburn, where she finished out her days.
The omnibus bill also provided full funding ($2 million) for the Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Trails program and for key acquisitions under the Land and Water Conservation Fund at existing national military parks in Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County, in Virginia.