The possibility of a Chesapeake Bay National Park could take a step closer toward reality this month as the Park Service unveils a detailed set of options of what such a park might look like.

No decision has been made about whether a unique Park Service unit will be created to highlight the nation’s largest estuary—a final decision rests with the president and Congress—but initial concepts got favorable reviews during a series of public hearings last fall.

Based on those reactions, the Park Service has developed four highly detailed park options, as well as a no-action alternative, to present during a final round of public meetings this summer.

“What we hope to hear from people is an answer to what might seem a straightforward question,” said Jonathan Doherty, director of the Park Service study. “If you were trying to represent the Chesapeake Bay as part of the National Park system, how would you do that? What would it be like? What kinds of resources should be included? What should the visitor experience be like?”

Based on input from last fall, the Park Service has developed concepts that include an expanded Gateways Network, a park focused on a specific area of the Bay, a reserve protecting working communities that relate to the Chesapeake, and a reserve focused on restoring an “exemplary” watershed feeding into the Bay.

The options will be spelled out in a report to be released in mid-June. A series of open houses are expected in July, during which visitors will be able to see detailed exhibits depicting each choice.

Doherty hopes to get feedback about which concept—or possibly which combination of concepts—people prefer. That will be shaped into a final recommendation which will go to Congress this fall. No particular sites are being proposed for any of the concepts at this point. That would happen if a recommended option eventually draws broad support both locally and in Congress.

The Park Service, at the request of Congress, last year launched a “special resource study”to recommend whether some form of national park or related designation should be created to highlight the Bay and its natural and cultural history.

The Park Service currently protects 385 parks, monuments, historical sites, battlefields and other national resources. Although it has three sites that border the Bay, none are focused on the Chesapeake itself.

Hundreds of people turned out for an initial round of workshops last fall and offered general support for the idea of a Chesapeake-related park, but did not rally around any single concept.

“We were really pleased with the interest and the thoughtfulness of public comments and suggestions,” Doherty said. “Now is an important opportunity for the second round of thinking about it.”

Besides a no new action alternative, the options being explored include:

Enhancing the existing Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. The network, which is coordinated by the Park Service, includes more than 120 sites around the Bay which highlight different cultural, historic or natural features of the Chesapeake and its watershed. The Park Service’s involvement with the network is scheduled to end in 2008.

This option would make the Park Service involvement permanent, and establish two Chesapeake Bay interpretive and education centers, one in the northern part and one in the southern part of the Bay. The centers would provide big picture stories and themes to visitors, and offer a starting point from which people would explore other Gateway sites.

The Park Service would also work with existing Gateway sites to tell a fuller Bay story by helping them to develop programs and tours that address surrounding working landscapes, such as farms, forests and maritime communities. Management of individual sites, which are operated by a variety of federal, state and local agencies, nonprofits and others, would not change.

A Chesapeake Bay Estuary National Park. This alternative calls for a primarily water-based park which which would encompass an area representative of core aspects of its estuarine environment, including shorelines, island and other ecosystems, as well as underwater grass beds, oyster bars and waterbird feeding areas.

Such a park would protect important habitats and provide visitors with opportunities to roam marshlands, paddle open waters and explore islands to enjoy and learn more about the estuary.

A Chesapeake Bay National Reserve. Unlike national parks, national reserves focus on the working landscape, recognizing how continued human use shapes the heritage and character of a place. Such a reserve would protect a large area of land and water that reflect the Bay region’s maritime and rural agricultural heritage.

It would seek to conserve the landscapes of the area, protect the traditional resource-dependent activities—such as fishing, forestry and agriculture—from sprawl development and sustain the working character of the site. Visitors would learn about both the site’s cultural heritage, and its links to natural resources. Such a reserve would be developed and managed in partnership with state and local governments and the private sector.

A Chesapeake Bay Watershed National Ecological and Cultural Preserve. This alternative would focus on a single exemplary Bay tributary, from headwater stream to open Bay and islands, as a representative cross-section of the larger Bay watershed. The Park Service would work with communities to protect and restore water quality throughout the preserve, and visitors would learn about the relationship between the land and the Bay, and why the fate of the Chesapeake rests on how activities are managed within the watershed.

An education center and tours, both self-guided and group, would provide visitors with a variety of experiences throughout the corridor, and special demonstration sites would allow them to learn about sustainable management practices in agriculture, forest and commercial and residential development.

The Park Service’s draft report, and a list of planned open houses to get public comment, will be available in mid-June at its Special Resources Study web site,