The House overwhelming approved a measure that would help secure the future of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network, which links Bay-related historic, cultural and natural sites throughout the watershed.

On a vote of 321-86, members in June voted to permanently authorize the National Park Service's role in coordinating the program and providing grants and technical advice for sites to help teach people about the Bay, provide public access and promote stewardship.

Congress originally authorized the network in 1998, and it was officially launched by the Park Service in 2000. Its current authorization was set to expire this year.

Advocates said the vote was a clear sign of congressional support for the program. The Bush administration has not included funding for the program in recent budgets, forcing Congress to add money in its annual appropriations bills. Congress approved $1.67 million for the program this year. Passage of the authorization is a necessary step for it to provide funding in the future.

"House passage is wonderful news for Gateways," said Claudia Schechter, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Chesapeake Gateways. "This administration has tried its best to prevent it from having appropriations.

"The Chesapeake Bay is as important a natural resource as any of the great National Parks might be to this country. It's a historic resource as well as a natural resource," she said. "It's really critically important that we keep the park service involved."

In past years, the program has faced opposition from some House members who objected to expanding the Park Service, or opposed grant programs which-like the Gateways Network-provide funds to local projects.

On June 5, congressional supporters turned back an effort on the House floor that would have limited the authorization to five years. Final passage of the permanent authorization bill, which was introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-MD, then drew overwhelming bipartisan support from lawmakers representing the Bay watershed.

"The Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network is a critical component to fostering an appreciation and understanding of the important role citizens have in helping to ensure the Bay's survival," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-MD.

Rep. Thelma Drake, R-VA, called the Gateways Network an important part of the overall Bay restoration effort. "When I see my grandchildren playing in the Bay, it reminds me of how important it is for us to preserve it for their children," she said.

Similar legislation was introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, earlier this year, and is awaiting action on the Senate floor. An aide to Cardin said the bill is likely to clear the Senate sometime this summer.

The Gateways Network consists of 161 state or federal parks, wildlife refuges, historical sites, museums, public access, water trails and other locations that serve as "gateways" for people to experience the Chesapeake.

Each Gateway helps visitors experience a portion of the Bay's natural, historic or cultural heritage. Taken as a whole, the network is intended to provide visitors with a broad understanding of the Bay, how it has influenced human activities and, in turn, been affected by humans.

A 2004 Park Service study recommended that the Gateways Network become a permanent part of the National Park Service. However, the Interior Department, which oversees the National Park Service, never forwarded the report to Congress for action.