Representatives of more than two dozen state agencies and environmental and land-conservation organizations wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in January endorsing the concept of a Baywide Treasured Landscapes initiative and asking for a dedicated funding source to implement it.
The organizations, which include state resource agencies as well as regional groups such as the James River Association and national land conservation powerhouses such as the Nature Conservancy, are asking the federal government to set ambitious goals for preserving land in the Bay watershed.
They would like to see the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund fully funded, and want Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to use 10 percent of that for a land preservation initiative in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The LWCF is primarily financed through royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling. Although it is authorized to provide $900 million a year to support federal, state and local land acquisitions, it has only been fully funded twice since it was created in 1964.
"We firmly believe that a strong federal commitment to, and funding for conserving the Chesapeake's Treasured Landscapes, enhancing public access and education, promoting citizen stewardship and restoring critical marsh and wildlife habitats, are essential components of an effective strategy to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay," the group wrote in its letter.
Besides heading the EPA, Jackson also chairs a new Federal Leadership Council created by the executive order to coordinate federal Bay-related actions.
The Treasured Landscapes initiative was among the key tenets that came out of President Barack Obama's May executive order, which declared the Chesapeake Bay a "national treasure" and demanded greater accountability and tighter regulations for restoring it.
Conservation has always been an important part of the restoration picture, but state and federal efforts have never been coordinated to protect large landscapes. The executive order elevated that cause, and also recognized, at a high level, the link between open and well-managed spaces and healthy fisheries and streams.
Exactly what is a Treasured Landscape has yet to be determined, although federal and state agencies have been working with nonprofit conservation organizations to establish criteria. In general, the program is expected to target landscapes that are important for both natural and cultural resources. That could include such things as a working farm or forests or fishing village, where water resources or habitats would also be conserved. Providing public access to the water is also considered an important element.
"Our desire is that this initiative expands the conservation of our most treasured lands and stimulates citizen involvement in land protection and public access for the health of the Bay and its rivers for the benefit and enjoyment of the 17 million citizens who live in its watershed and its millions of visitors," the letter said.
At a session during the January Choose Clean Water conference, David O'Neill, president of the Friends of the John Smith Chesapeake Trail, asked the crowd for their definitions of treasured places. Some attendees talked emotionally about places they had visited as children or hidden spots they feared would soon be overrun by development. Some talked about the lack of public access to the Bay, much of which is in private hands.
O'Neill's group, The Friends of the John Smith Trail, has promoted the Treasured Landscape initiative as a means to conserve land and promote public access. The Friends, National Geographic Society, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation sponsored the meeting that resulted in the letter.
Federal land conservation funding is especially important now, as many desirable properties that would otherwise be developed are becoming available at far discounted prices. At the same time, land preservation funds in the states are jeopardized by the poor economy, causing lawmakers to divert money to other programs.