When I first moved to the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area in 1976 to go to graduate school, I heard a lot about the Chesapeake Bay - its beauty and its bounty as well as its declining condition.

Two years later, upon completing of my degree and just starting what proved to be a 28-year career on Capitol Hill, I set out to explore the Bay and its rivers and the opportunities they might provide for recreation. Armed with maps and state tourism guides, I spent many weekends traveling around the watershed.

What struck me immediately and most was how little public recreational access there was to the watershed's shorelines, particularly if one didn't have a boat. What surprised me even more was that there were no national parks on the Bay or the great rivers that feed it where the public could go to swim, camp, fish and experience the nation's largest estuary.

Over the past three decades, I've visited about a third of the 392 units in our national park system, including many of the its crown jewels - Yellowstone, Glacier, Everglades, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Acadia. I've also traveled extensively around the Chesapeake and most of its rivers, exploring Gateway communities and sites, paddling portions of the 3,000-mile watertrail Captain John Smith blazed four centuries ago, camping (with permission of property owners) on spectacular beaches, hiking and biking along river corridor paths and swimming in the watershed's fresh and brackish waters.

Although much of the Bay has changed over the years, there are still many wild and remote places and many natural, cultural and recreational treasures in the watershed every bit as magnificent as any I've experienced in our national parks. Here I've seen landscapes, waterscapes and wildlife of breathtaking beauty - shorebirds and pelicans that blacken the skyline in flight; bald eagles and osprey lining treetops along the water's edge; rockfish spawns in such great numbers that they were bumping into the sides of my kayak; and miles of extraordinary forest and marsh shorelines that evoke images of what the Bay's landscape must have looked like to the Chesapeake's early natives and European settlers.

Yet - despite these extraordinary attributes - the Chesapeake Bay itself, the great rivers that feed it and the incredible variety of the landscapes within the watershed are not well represented in the National Park System. And still today, few of the region's 17 million residents have the opportunity to experience and enjoy these treasures.

An official from the U.S. Department of Education who had recently moved to this area told me that he got in his car one weekend, much like I did nearly 30 years ago, to explore the Bay and was shocked at how little access there was to the shoreline. Public access remains limited to only 2 percent of the Bay region's 11,600 miles of shoreline.

Since the 1960s, many citizens and organizations have called for the National Park Service to join the effort to restore the Bay by helping to conserve the Chesapeake's remaining treasured landscapes as well as expanding public access, education and recreational opportunities on the Bay and its tributaries.

Important steps have been taken. In 1998, legislation was enacted to establish a Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network to provide technical and financial assistance to parks, refuges, water trails and historic sites as well as other organizations that conserve, restore and interpret natural, recreational, historical and cultural resources within the watershed.

The bipartisan Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Designation Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2006 to commemorate John Smith's voyages of discovery and help highlight the Chesapeake Bay's remarkable maritime history, the diversity of its peoples and its many recreational opportunities.

And in 2008, Congress designated the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail to commemorate the Chesapeake Campaign of the War of 1812, which inspired the poem that became the national anthem.

These three actions have brought many benefits to the region. But they still do not provide a regionwide and or systematic effort by the National Park Service to help conserve and promote recreational access to the Bay watershed or, as a nation, recognize the Chesapeake's national significance.

At the request of Congress, two Special Resources Studies to examine the potential for establishing a new unit of the National Park System focused on the Chesapeake Bay were completed by the National Park Service in 1993 and 2004. The studies concluded that the Chesapeake Bay is unquestionably "nationally significant" and that the National Park Service should play a key role in its conservation, interpretation and recreation. The latter study was transmitted to the Congress in January 2010 with the finding that "a unit of the National Park System…would make a significant contribution to the protection and public enjoyment of the Bay. "

Among the principal recommendations contained in the strategies to implement Chesapeake Executive Order, are the creation of a new unit of the National Park Service in the Chesapeake Bay, the establishment of a treasured landscapes program in the watershed and significant enhancements to public access along the waters of the Bay.

The time has come for the National Park Service and the Congress to establish a new archetype for the National Park System on the Chesapeake Bay itself - a new kind of unit that can help conserve this natural, cultural and historical treasure, as well as address critical needs for landscape preservation, improved public access and education, and ecosystem protection. This would be done in partnership with state and local governments, and nonprofit organizations.

In its 2009 report, "Advancing the National Park Idea," the National Parks Second Century Commission recommended a national park system that provides "a more representative picture of America, and makes the national parks cornerstones in a network of protected areas that safeguard biological diversity and the nation's evolving cultural heritage." It called for the inclusion of:

  • "Lived-in" and working landscapes in urban and rural areas where traditional and sustainable land uses continue;
  • Critical habitats - especially freshwater and marine areas and corridors connecting protected areas with broader wildlife ranges - to ensure the ecological integrity and long-term viability of national park ecosystems;
  • Historic sites and cultural landscapes that broaden the diversity of the national narrative embedded in the parks, from Indian times through the present; and
  • Ecological restoration areas: heavily impacted landscapes with the potential to be restored to near-natural conditions that could serve as demonstration areas, especially near cities.

What better place is there in the nation to showcase that vision than here in the Chesapeake?

Such a unit could provide tremendous economic benefits and new job opportunities for local gateway communities, small businesses, states and citizens in the Chesapeake region. A 2006 study found that the national park system generates $13.3 billion in local private-sector economic activity and supports more than 265,000 private sector jobs nationwide. Everglades National Park alone supports more than 1,700 jobs and generates in excess of $77 million a year in total non-local visitor and park payroll spending. Other national parks have similar, if not greater, returns on investment. Imagine the potential economic benefits for the Chesapeake region!

It could also serve as a means to engage citizens in the stewardship of our "national treasure" in new and exciting ways. The National Parks Second Century Commission report noted that "Americans have a deep and enduring love for the national parks, places we treasure because they embody our highest ideals and values." Working together with state and local governments, citizens organizations and the private sector, the National Park Service can bring a broad range of experience in landscape level protection, ecosystem partnerships, recreation, interpretation, education and heritage tourism that can help to save the Bay's natural and cultural heritage and provide increased recreational and stewardship opportunities for all citizens.

As Congress and the administration begin to implement the Chesapeake Executive Order and to develop strategies to carry out the America's Great Outdoors Initiative, surely the establishment of a Chesapeake National Park should be among the top priorities.