The National Park Service is entering the final phase of a study to help determine whether Congress should create a new park or preserve focused on the Chesapeake Bay.

In June, it released a draft report outlining five potential options. They include:

  • A Status Quo Alternative, with no new Park Service role in the Bay Region.
  • An Enhanced Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network that would continue the Park Service role in the network beyond 2008, and add two interpretation and education centers to introduce people to the region.
  • A Chesapeake Bay Estuary National Park, focused largely on the the Bay’s aquatic and shoreline natural resources.
  • A Chesapeake Bay National Reserve, focused on preserving a representative section of the region’s natural and cultural heritage.
  • A Chesapeake Bay Watershed National Ecological & Cultural Preserve, which would focus on a single watershed and how it, and the activities within it, affect the Bay.

After receiving public input, the Park Service will prepare a final report to Congress, which had requested the study. A final decision about whether any park is created rests with Congress and the president.

No specific sites have been identified for any park. That is not likely to happen until broad local and regional support coalesces and Congress and the administration believe it is appropriate to consider a specific proposal.

Under the current scenarios, the Park Service would acquire little additional land, and instead would manage regions in cooperation with state and local governments.

Copies of the Draft Chesapeake Bay Special Resource Study and Environmental Impact Statement are available on the internet at www.chesapeakestudy.org

Enhanced Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

The existing Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network is a partnership of more than 120 parks, refuges, maritime museums, historic sites and water trails around the watershed that help visitors experience the Bay’s incredible diversity. This alternative would make the Gateways Network a permanent program of the Park Service, which would ensure its long-term viability and enhance the Bay’s status among the country’s treasures.

In addition, it would add two Chesapeake Bay interpretive and education centers, one in the northern and one in the southern part of the Bay that would be the portals through which visitors view the Bay’s “big picture” stories and themes. The centers would offer visitors a holistic introduction to this complex region and serve as a starting point from which they would explore the scores of other Gateways sites.

The individual sites would continue to tell the Bay’s stories to visitors in a variety of ways: touring picturesque lighthouses, paddling winding creeks, sailing old skipjacks, strolling wooded trails, visiting historical sites and savoring local traditions. By their very diversity, the Gateways convey the breadth of the Chesapeake’s influence and the links between all of it special places.

This alternative would also extend the benefits of the network to working Bay landscapes such as farm, forest and maritime landscapes not currently included within the network by supporting efforts of existing Gateways to develop tours or programs that address these landscapes.

In addition, state-designated heritage areas and rural historic districts containing Gateway members, as well as river corridors along its water trails, would be eligible for Gateways Network technical and financial assistance to support conservation efforts. Assistance would target conservation easements and conservation plan development or implementation.

The interpretive centers would fill a key gap in communicating the Bay’s story: a lack of opportunities for residents and visitors to grasp an introduction to the broadest Bay and watershedwide themes. They would offer a range of interpretive programs, activities and facilities focusing on overarching and principal Bay themes, as well as maps of the entire network, and on-line opportunities to explore other sites and plan trips. In addition, the centers might provide web and television interpretive/educational programming and links as tools for reaching off-site audiences.

They would be located where a combination of geography, transportation systems and services concentrate large numbers of people at opposite regions of the Bay. Each center would have a direct view of Bay waters.

While this alternative would authorize the Gateways Network as a permanent program of the National Park Service, it would not change the status of individual sites, which would continue under their existing ownership and management. What this designation would do is recognize their significance to the Chesapeake Bay as the National Park Service links all of these chapters to present a more complete story.

Moreover, a permanent designation would provide a long-term federal commitment to the importance of the Bay story, rather than the current short-term Park Service role stemming from the existing Gateways Network legislation, which expires in 2008. The overall guidance and coordination of the Gateways Network would be carried out much in the same fashion as it is today by the Park Service in cooperation with a multiorganizational board or coordinating body.

Chesapeake Bay Estuary National Park

A Chesapeake Bay Estuary National Park would focus on the waters of the Bay, letting visitors explore the natural marvels of one of the world’s largest estuaries. They might roam marshlands, stroll beaches, visit islands or paddle open waters, as well as admire the incredible bounty of the Bay: its fish, birds and vegetation. And, they would discover firsthand the dynamics of a healthy Bay.

The first step for visitors might be an onshore interpretive/orientation center. Here, with a vista of the Bay as a backdrop, the Chesapeake story would unfold. Exhibits and programs would focus on the park’s estuarine theme, while drawing the whole Bay and its watershed into the picture.

Most of the park would be located in the Bay’s open waters, and a key aspect of the park’s mission would be to protect a sample of the Bay’s aquatic environment and to restore its health. The public would have numerous opportunities to get out on the water, either on tours of a Bay island or paddling trips along shore.

The park’s land area would be limited in size, but not in significance. Here, visitors might explore such critical habitats as wetlands, marshes and grasslands. They would see for themselves why things like healthy beds of submerged aquatic vegetation are so crucial to crab and oyster populations. Visitors would also learn how diverse aspects of their collective lifestyles can affect the health of the Bay.

Essential elements of the park would include:

  • a large contiguous water area that has some recognizable identity as a part of the larger Bay;
  • estuarine aquatic communities such as submerged aquatic vegetation beds, oyster beds, water bird feeding areas and islands, as well as deep and shallow open waters;
  • tidal ecological communities such as shorelines, beaches and tidal marshes;
  • suitable areas for public access along the shoreline to provide for land and water-based interpretation, education and recreation; and
  • a suitable location for an interpretive center providing physical and interpretive orientation to the park and the entire Bay to serve as a launching point for interactive experiences in the park and other Chesapeake sites.

The size of the park depends on the specific characteristics of a particular area. Typically, national parks are relatively large, encompassing a substantial enough area to represent and ensure protection of the core resource base.

A core goal of this alternative would be to conserve and restore the estuarine environment and natural resources within the area as a high-quality system. This goal recognizes the significant ecological function of the Bay as a natural system and the importance of protecting certain core areas as close-to-pristine environments. These would provide habitat, breeding grounds and refuge for countless species throughout their life cycles.

In addition to the interpretive center, other aspects might include group tours, planned itineraries and established programs. Potential activities might include canoe, kayak or sailing tours, experiences in the underwater environment such as glass boat tours and scheduled dives, and interactive programs with researchers and scientists.

The park would also offer a virtual interpretive experience for those who are unable to visit the park, wish to pre-plan their activities, or visit the reserve but do not venture out onto the resource.

Chesapeake Bay National Reserve

A Chesapeake Bay National Reserve would encompass a section of the area’s natural landscape: forests, shores and streams as well as the cultural and human landscapes of small fishing towns, rural landscapes, working farmlands—perhaps even historic factories. Land in the reserve would mostly be privately owned, but its resources would be managed through a strategy recognizing the national significance of this region.

Natural areas in the reserve would include state parks, refuges and perhaps, newly protected sensitive natural areas. Broad shores, winding riverbanks, deep forests and wetlands would be included in this mix.

The reserve would introduce visitors to conservation efforts that not only focus on the natural environment, but cultural and economic ones as well. Visitor centers, tours and events would highlight such aspects of Bay life as the seafood industry, plantations, small towns and historic settlements. It would be managed by a partnership between private citizens and local, state and federal governments through a coordinating board.

A representative reserve would encompass resources typical of the Chesapeake’s aquatic, rural, maritime and agricultural heritage within one contiguous area. To do this, it would include:

  • one or more waterfront maritime communities and their associated resources—boatyards, fishing piers or seafood processing operations;
  • historic and cultural sites — historic settlements, plantations, wharves;
  • farms and forests;
  • Bay and tributary shorelines;
  • shoreline tidewater ecological communities—beaches, tidal marshes and grasslands;
  • estuarine aquatic communities—open waters, underwater grass beds, oyster reefs, crabbing areas and islands;
  • public access points at Bay and river shorelines; and
  • existing protected lands such as parks, refuges and natural areas.
  • The size of the reserve could vary, depending on the characteristics of a specific area. Other reserves are typically 15,000 acres or larger, and contain a broad enough area to effectively represent and conserve the characteristic resources.

A core goal of this alternative is to recognize that it is the interconnectedness of the Bay’s natural environment and human population that gives the Chesapeake its character. Historical and modern patterns on the working landscape reflect this—from early Native American settlements to colonial plantations to maritime communities and today’s watermen and crabbing industry. A reserve would conserve and sustain the viability of the landscape through three key principles:

  • retain the living, working pattern of privately owned lands and human uses of land and water, complemented by the protection of key sensitive resource areas;
  • conserve the reserve landscape, allowing change to occur, but protecting against sprawl development and the conversion of resource lands to developed uses; and
  • protect traditional resource-dependent activities—commercial fishing, crabbing, oystering, agriculture and forestry—from development pressures and manage resources for sustainable uses.

An interpretive/education center would be the beginning of a Chesapeake reserve experience. It would introduce visitors to themes and orient them to its various opportunities. It is envisioned that this would be a portal to the other public and private sites that collectively illustrate the working landscape.

The center would be located near natural, cultural and recreational sites that already exist on either public land or in a maritime community. Trails, programs, festivals, exhibits and tours at individual sites within the preserve would form the primary Chesapeake experience for the public.

Chesapeake Bay National Ecological & Cultural Preserve

In a National Ecological & Cultural Preserve, visitors would experience the Chesapeake Bay along the natural flow of a single tributary as it runs from upland headwaters down to the open Bay. Whether by car, on foot, bicycle or kayak, travelers along the corridor would be in direct contact with the diverse places and activities that create, feed and influence the Bay and its watercourses.

The ecological and cultural preserve would track one significant midsize (15– to 50-mile) Bay tributary ending in the main body of the Chesapeake and encompassing important components of its surrounding landscape.

While human activity would be visible throughout the preserve, it would be light. The rivers and their riparian corridors would be the dominant features of the landscape, which would highlight forested streambanks and healthy wetlands filled with wildlife.

Conservation and restoration programs adopted here, in an environment that supports a range of modern uses—from farms and towns to residences and business—would be a model for the stewardship of natural habitats and the restoration of water quality.

Through a central interpretation/orientation center and out in the preserve, people would find a range of exhibits, sites and programs revealing how the elements of the preserve fit into the Chesapeake as a whole. Visitors would learn how people have influenced the Bay in its past and how they can sustain its vital functions in the future.

Within the core riparian area, resources to be represented include:

  • headwater ecological communities—freshwater marshes, swamps, headwater streams and upland/headwater forests;
  • riparian ecological communities—shorelines, wetlands, tidal marshes, river beaches and islands; and
  • estuarine aquatic communities—SAV, oyster beds, islands and deep and shallow water, and islands.

The preserve would also encompass an array of land uses. In essence, the preserve’s landscape, wildlife, human settlements and watercourses would offer enough natural and cultural diversity to illustrate watershed ecological processes; the historic interaction of humans with the landscape; contemporary land use issues and progressive resource stewardship management practices.

The overall size of the preserve would depend on the specific characteristics of the waterway, but would be expected to encompass many square miles. A core goal of the reserve would be to conserve and restore the tributary ecosystem so that human uses are in optimal balance with natural processes. This would be achieved through four principles:

  • protect and restore natural resources within the core riparian area, with its habitats retaining a high degree of integrity in as near a pristine state as possible;
  • conserve riparian shorelines within the core riparian area, including conservation easements and incentives for applying best management practices, with an eye on establishing, as near as possible, a contiguous forested or vegetated riparian buffer along rivers and streams in the core area;
  • protect and restore water quality in the reserve through a coordinated watershed management plan developed by state and local governments and other partners in consultation with the National Park Service; and
  • illustrate how sustainable management practices can help restore the Chesapeake Bay. Partnerships would be developed to facilitate public access to, and interpret, managed resource lands with high demonstration value, including techniques such as low impact development, conservation landscaping, nutrient trading and riparian buffers.

Such a preserve would be unique within the National Park System in helping the public to understand both a place, and how to ensure its future. This education would begin in an interpretive center that would introduce key Chesapeake themes and resources and orient visitors to experiences and sites throughout the preserve. It would be located near a complex of natural resource sites, such as on publicly owned lands within the core area.

The center would partner with organizations and individuals to present programming on current and evolving stewardship practices. The programs would include both self-guided and group tours, as well as planned itineraries with established programs.

Comments Sought

The Park Service is hosting a series of open houses which will allow people to view exhibits on the alternatives, discuss the concepts with Park Service staff, and offer written comments. Open house dates and locations are:

  • Annapolis City Dock: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m July 12, www.hometownannapolis.com/tour_citydock
  • Sailwinds Visitor Center, Cambridge, MD: 2–8 p.m. July 17, 1-800-522-8687
  • The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, VA: noon to 6 p.m. July 23, 757-596-2222
  • Yorktown Visitor Center, Yorktown, VA: 5–9 p.m. July 24, 757-898-2410
  • Fort McHenry National Monument, Baltimore, MD: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 27, 410-962-4290

Comments may also be submitted by mail or on-line at www.chesapeakestudy.org The deadline for comments is Aug. 29.