The National Park Service will continue to fund the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Program this year, although at just half the level the network of natural, historic and cultural sites got last year.

U.S. Sens. Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski announced in April that the program would get $739,000 for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Part of that funding will also be used to start the new Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which Congress voted to create late last year.

The Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which is coordinated by the Park Service, was formally launched in 2000, and consists of 156 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.

Grants made available under the program have funded more than 200 projects, including exhibits, new interpretive or orientation brochures, educational programs, water and land trails, and related access improvements.

The program got $1.5 million last year, but it had been unfunded since the new federal fiscal year began Oct. 1, a victim of Congress’ failure to pass appropriations bills last fall for most federal departments.

A Senate proposal would have funded the network at $1.625 million this year, but House legislation would have eliminated the program. No appropriation bill was passed until February when the new Congress was in session, but the package gave little direction as to how to fund many programs.

Cardin and Mikulski, joined by Virginia Sens. John Warner and Jim Webb, sent a letter in February to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton urging her to provide funds for the Gateways Network and the John Smith trail.

“The Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network is unique because it brings volunteers, parks, historic sites, wildlife refuges, museums and water trails together to ensure that visitors can experience the fullness of life along the Chesapeake Bay,” Cardin said.

The outlook for next year is uncertain, though. President Bush did not include the Gateways program in his 2008 budget request, although he did seek $150,000 for the John Smith trail.

Mikulski, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, pledged to fight to preserve funding. “I am proud to support the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Program and Watertrails Network and the creation of the John Smith Trail so that visitors can enjoy and appreciate this national treasure and Maryland’s greatest natural resource,” she said.