The St. Mary's River Watershed Association is advertising a new way to rally its current and future members in its community.

It has joined a new Internet community on the Chesapeake Watershed Network.

It's free, it's easy, and executive director Bob Lewis thinks it might prove to be more effective than more traditional ways of doing business.

"To me, this is a high-end opportunity that is paid for and monitored by someone else, but with lots of opportunities to control how I use it," he said.

The Chesapeake Watershed Network is an Internet hub that supports fast and fluid exchanges between people working to protect and restore the Bay and its rivers.

Since its debut in September, more than 600 people have joined the network and used it for everything from seeking advice, reacting to media coverage and asking opinions on hot topics to posting job openings and grant announcements and arranging carpools to the 2008 Chesapeake Watershed Forum.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay launched the Chesapeake Watershed Network to help conservationists across the Bay region collaborate more effectively.

Alliance interim director Lou Etgen said the network is a free resource that makes it easier for people to find partners and good advice. It even provides smaller groups with reliable ways to send group e-mails and share computer files.

The network encourages communication between people in different locations, with a variety of ties to the Bay restoration effort, who might not have the opportunity to meet or converse in person.

Members of outlying rural communities can find themselves in direct dialogue with watershed professionals in cities and universities. Government leaders can hear from those "in the trenches." New river groups, less familiar with grant opportunities, may find application announcements waiting in their e-mails.

Network planners hope that a broad regional conversation may ultimately deliver stronger, innovative action for the Bay and its rivers.

"We've seen how much people benefit from networking at the Watershed Forum each year and we wanted to find a way to facilitate that kind of interaction throughout the year," Etgen said.

The Alliance developed the network with support from the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, Chesapeake Bay Trust, Chesapeake NEMO (Network for Education of Municipal Officials), National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Consultants from Green Media Toolshed and Water Words that Work provided communications and technical expertise.

"The network has been set up to address the fact that efforts across the Bay have been fragmented and that we need to get serious about helping all of these people collaborate and synchronize around solutions," said Martin Kearns of Green Media Toolshed. "They need infrastructure."

Jonathan Doherty of Chesapeake NEMO anticipates using the network to draw more people and resources into projects that improve planning and conservation efforts by local governments. "For the first time in the Chesapeake watershed, there is an easy, on-line mechanism for sharing information, working on things together and creating things together," he said. "That's pretty significant."

Joining the network provides instant access to a searchable database of people active in conservation issues across the Bay region-without knowing their names. Just type in subjects of interest and a list of people who have identified themselves with that same interest will appear.

Some members have established discussion groups for specific topics, such as forest conservation or the 2009 Susquehanna Sojourn. Others focus on specific states or watershed organizations.

Lewis has created one of the newest discussion groups, which is devoted to the St. Mary's watershed. He's busy inviting local advocates to take advantage of it.

As a bonus, the network will introduce them to hundreds of people in a broader web-based community who are working on similar issues across the Bay region.

"Maybe they'll join a group about Maryland or stormwater or forestry, too," Lewis said. "That's a great feature that I couldn't possibly offer through my own web site."

Lewis is also optimistic that the network will communicate with his members more effectively than the e-mail group they established through Yahoo.

"We have members and nonmembers who want to know what's going on with the river, but the Yahoo group doesn't work well," Lewis said. "When there's a lot of discussion, there's also a lot of e-mail. People are overwhelmed by their in box, and they unsubscribe."

The Chesapeake Watershed Network offers more choices and more control.

"The ability to receive individual e-mails, or just a summary, or just check in on the network site when you want to, that's a major asset," Lewis said.

The network includes a resource library where users can upload and download shared files. It also offers the use of blogs, Wiki notepads, and tag clouds-features which might reveal a generational divide in the region's conservation community. But newcomers to these concepts can explore them or ignore them.

"There's always a trade-off between how advanced the tool is and how easy it is to use," said Eric Eckl of Water Words That Work. "We wanted to offer a tool that is very inclusive, so that if all you want is e-mail, you can still be a full member of the community. If you want more advanced features, they are available to you."

The evolution of the network is ultimately up to its users. But Internet tools and communities, like those that played a role in the 2008 presidential election, have proved a powerful organizing tool. Gurus of the Chesapeake Watershed Network see the same potential here.

"Personally, I'll feel we're successful when we see folks with a concept of something they'd like to do in their own region use the network to reach out, and other groups begin to see how they could implement the same idea throughout the watershed," Etgen said.

Eckl added that the rapid growth of the Chesapeake Watershed Network suggests that the Bay community may seize on web-based tools for creating social change.

"Our research showed that watershed groups and local governments and Riverkeepers report that about half of their work every day is in partnership with some other organization," Eckl said. "So the underlying philosophy of the Chesapeake Watershed Network is that anything we can do to make that collaboration more productive will enhance the effort to restore the Chesapeake as a whole."

Joining the Chesapeake Watershed Network is free. Visit www.chesapeakenetwork.org and follow the link to register. Questions can be directed to network administrator Donna Morelli, of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, at 717-737-8622 or dmorelli@acb-online.org