A far-reaching proposal put forward by several federal agencies would ensure that thousands of acres along portions of four Bay tributaries would remain protected for future generations to provide a haven from development for wildlife and humans alike.

The proposal is among 10 landscape preservation projects vying for support in the federal budget that will be released in February.

If selected, the Chesapeake Great Rivers Landscape Collaborative could send tens of millions of dollars in federal money to the Bay region starting in 2014 which would, in turn, help leverage state, local and private funds to make the plan a reality.

The proposal by the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, all parts of the federal Interior Department, would target land conservation efforts in four priority areas:

  • The lower James River, including the Chickahominy River along with areas near the mouth of the York River.
  • The tidal Rappahannock River, mostly in and around the Rappahannock Valley National Wildlife Refuge;
  • The Middle Potomac River, roughly from the District of Columbia to Douglas Point at Nanjemoy Creek; and
  • The tidal Nanticoke River reaching into Delaware.

Although not in the initial group, the proposal leaves open the possibility of protecting lands along the lower Susquehanna River if funding is available in future years.

Not all of the land would be protected, but funds would be targeted for high-priority sites identified by federal, state or local agencies. The funds would be used to purchase easements that would stop future development or, in some cases, to purchase land outright. Easements and land would be purchased only from willing sellers, officials say.

The project stems in part from a new effort advanced in the Obama Administration's America Great Outdoors strategy, which seeks to use a portion of federal land protection money to drive "landscape scale" conservation initiatives.

Instead of sprinkling smaller amounts of money around to protect individual tracts, the goal of landscape conservation is to identify large areas where the resources of multiple agencies can be used to achieve multiple shared objectives over broader areas.

"The theory behind it is that you get people all rowing in the same direction," said Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, which has been promoting a regional Bay initiative.

"These river corridors in the Chesapeake form an interesting basket of interests in terms of water quality, habitat, ecological value, historical value and economic value in terms of tourism," he said.

All of the priority areas are along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. But they were selected because they accomplish multiple objectives, such as protecting vistas, water quality, wildlife habitat and important American Indian sites, while also improving public access to rivers.

The Nanticoke was selected, in part, to help protect upland migration routes for important wetland habitats as downstream areas, including portions of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, are inundated by the rising sea level.

Numerous land conservation groups, American Indian tribes and river organizations have written letters backing the concept.

It's unknown how much funding would be available. This year, the administration sought $109 million for two landscape collaborative projects. The Interior Department invited 10 proposals for next year, including the one from the Chesapeake region, but did not indicate how many it would ultimately select for funding.

Supporters stress that the request does not rely on new federal dollars. Instead, it redirects a portion of funds that already go into the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which receives a portion of the royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling.

Nonetheless, because of tight budgets, Congressional budget writers frequently raid the fund as they seek money to pay for other programs, so funding is uncertain, even if the Chesapeake project is selected.

"There's a lot of ifs," Dunn said.

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania and which sent a letter endorsing the proposal, called it "pretty exciting."

"I think the Chesapeake region is in a very good position to compete for that," she said. "Of course, those dollars are subject to appropriations, so we may successfully compete for it, but never get it. But if you don't compete for it, you can't have it."

The proposal could play an important role in achieving a goal of protecting an additional 2 million acres of land in the Bay watershed by 2025, which was established in a 2010 Chesapeake Bay strategy drafted by federal agencies. The 2-million-acre figure was derived by projecting the past rate of land protection into the future. But a report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the Chesapeake Conservancy said it was unlikely the goal could be achieved without stepped-up federal funding, as state level funding for land protection has declined in recent years.

"Unless we accelerate funding, we can't keep our current trajectory, and the new goals were based on the current trajectory," Swanson said.