A series of new “gateways” may soon give Bay watershed residents and visitors new ways — both physically and intellectually — to visit the Chesapeake.

This fall, the National Park Service is working to lay the foundation for a network of natural, recreational, cultural and historic sites that people can visit to learn various stories about the nation’s largest estuary.

Officials from local governments, states, nonprofit organizations and others are meeting with the park service to outline what types of things may be considered gateways — places where people can experience some aspect the Chesapeake.

They hope that the network, linked by water trails, scenic drives and hiking paths, will boost tourism and inspire a heightened sense of respect for the waterbody.

“The theory basically is that the closer people are associated with the Bay, the more experience they have on the Bay, the greater their concern and attention is going to be,” said Charlie Stek, an aide to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, who led the push for the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Act, which became law last year.

In introducing the legislation, Sarbanes lamented that the Chesapeake region contains many “distinctive treasures” but few people know of sites outside their own area, or how they fit together to tell a broader Bay story.

“What we currently lack — and what this measure provides — is a mechanism that links these many valuable resources and sites throughout the watershed into a unified network of jewels of the Chesapeake,” Sarbanes said. “This shared linkage and identity can improve access to the Bay and further educate residents and visitors alike about this treasured resource.”

To fulfill that vision, the legislation calls for a greater park service role in the Bay Program. But the measure did not create a Chesapeake Bay National Park. Rather, it sought to use the park service’s ability to work with communities and to “interpret” complex stories so they can be absorbed by visitors.

Nor is the park service expected to acquire new property. Instead, the its role is to provide technical and financial assistance to create the network and to help locally supported projects at places participating in the network.

In the coming year, the park service has $400,000 in grant money available for demonstration projects at potential gateways and water trails. These may help communities improve sites, create interpretive displays or make other changes to help link the emerging network of sites together.

“You might see interpretive displays and signage or kiosks or interpretative programs at places where they weren’t before, or you might see them in a more coordinated way,” said Jonathan Doherty, project manager for the park service.

By linking the sites, people will not only get a fuller picture of the Bay, but they may learn about — and visit — sites they didn’t previously know about.

Gateways are envisioned as sites where people can directly access the water or experience a particular facet of the Bay’s natural or cultural history. People visiting the gateways may learn about waterfowl at a wildlife refuge, then about the life of watermen in a fishing community. They may learn about shipping at a seaport, and wetlands at a nature park. At each stop, visitors would not only learn about the specific site, but how they are related to the Bay and other sites.

“At its core, it’s really about building a network to connect people to the Bay’s places and stories,” Doherty said.

Doherty and others are reluctant to speculate on what places may end up as gateways, because they see local interest and leadership as a primary factor in whether a site participates in the network. “This is not something that can be of the park service alone,” he said. “The very nature of the Bay, and the resources that are out there, the stories that are out there, require it to be a collaborative, partnership effort.”

By the end of winter, Doherty expects a clear picture of the gateways network to emerge. At that time, the Park Service and other co-sponsors plan to host a conference to discuss a draft framework, outlining parameters for the gateways network. After the conference, the framework will be finalized and grants will be made available for demonstration projects.

The amount available for grants could mushroom in coming years. The gateways bill authorized the park service to spend up to $3 million in each of the following years on technical and financial support — mainly in grants — for gateways projects, although Congress will have to approve that amount in each of those years.

Both Sarbanes and Doherty envision the gateways network as having three aspects: gateway hubs, gateway sites and the routes that tie those places together.

Gateway hubs may involve a community with a cluster of Bay-related sites attracting a significant number of people, such as Annapolis or Havre de Grace. Hubs would serve as primary visitor orientation centers where people would be introduced to broad Bay themes, and get information about where they can experience the Bay’s cultural and natural resources. At the hubs, they could plan visits to other gateway sites.

Gateway sites away from the hubs would focus on a particular piece of the overall Bay story. They might be a museum, a natural area or a place with public access to the water.

In some cases, the gateway sites may even provide opportunities to volunteer in ongoing habitat or historic restoration projects. Designated drives may link those sites together.

A key aim of the program is to give people improved physical — as well as intellectual — access to the water; so grants may help local municipalities or organizations acquire or improve new public access sites.

“One of the problems is that only about 2 percent of the Bay is publicly accessible,” Stek said. “You may be driving over the Bay Bridge and see the Bay, but in a lot of communities you can’t even get to the water.”

Tying in with gateway sites — and reaching farther into the watershed — will be a new network of water trails, which is also being supported by the legislation. Those designated canoe, kayak or boating routes will travel up and down rivers allowing people to make stops at various points of interest, including gateway sites.

Water trail development is already in the beginning stages on some rivers, and hundreds of miles of designated trails may be set up within a few years, giving people more opportunities to access the water.

Doherty said that eventually, people may not have to venture farther than their computer to experience Chesapeake Bay gateways. He envisions a “virtual gateway” system in which one navigates from gateway to gateway via the Internet and learns Bay stories according to specific themes or geographic regions.

Gateways, in fact, is a project that may never be completed.

“By the very nature of the Bay, this will be a work in progress,” Doherty said. “There is so much out there, and there are so many opportunities to be involved, one would hope there may be new aspects of the Bay, or new additions to the gateways network, years and years down the road. There’s an awful lot of rivers and streams out there.”

Regional Working Session Dates & Locations

A series of regional working sessions are scheduled to introduce the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Initiative to potential co-operators and to seek thoughts on potential places and stories to link into the network. The first session for Maryland’s Western Shore took place Nov. 22. Four more meetings are scheduled around the Bay.

All sessions will have the same format and run from 1–4:00 pm.

  • Eastern Shore: Thursday, Dec. 9 St. Michael’s Maritime Museum, St. Michael’s, MD.

  • Northern Bay/Susquehanna River: Friday, Dec. 10, Rodgers Tavern, Perryville, MD.

  • Norfolk/Hampton Area & VA Eastern Shore: Monday, Dec. 13, Nauticus National Maritime Center, Norfolk, VA.

  • Northern Neck/Middle Peninsula: Tuesday, Dec. 14, Windmill Point, White Stone, VA.

For information, contact: National Park Service, Chesapeake Bay Program Office, 410 Severn Ave., Annapolis MD 21403, or call Carol Kelly (410) 267-9857, or e-mail: kelly.carol@epa.gov