Only a few hundred feet from the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac sits an exhibit that explains how those rivers link a nearby wetland to the Chesapeake Bay.

The exhibit, Wonders of the Harpers Ferry Wetlands, is in a building across the street from an old fire engine house - now known as John Brown's Fort - which highlights the pre-Civil War raid that makes the West Virginia town familiar to most people.

But not everyone at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park was pleased when prime, street-front space was devoted not to historical displays, but to a wetland exhibit featuring taxidermied mink, gray fox, great blue heron, American widgeon and other wetland dwellers in a diorama of their natural habitat.

"The exhibit was referred to by some people as the dead, stuffed animal exhibit," said David Fox, a National Park Service ranger at Harpers Ferry. But, he added, "We broadened our message and expanded our constituency. We've got a more complete story being told here." In a way, that illustrates internal debates going on at parks throughout the Bay watershed. The park service has more than 60 "units" in the 64,000-square-mile Bay drainage, from Shenandoah National Park and Gettysburg National Military Park to Clara Barton National Historic Site and the Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts. Altogether, they occupy nearly 300,000 acres, and host more than 20 million visitors a year - more than the watershed's entire population.

While the park service became a member of the Bay Program in October 1994, pledging to work to restore and protect the Bay, many parks are still trying to identify what - if any - connection they have to the Chesapeake.

Most park sites within the watershed, such as Harpers Ferry, deal primarily with cultural or historical themes.

"For many of those folks, they do not necessarily see any immediate connection to something that is inherently a natural and ecological restoration effort," said Bob Campbell, the park service's liaison to the Bay Program.

Still, he said, Bay participation may come in various forms. It could be as low-key as distributing Bay educational material, or more visible, such as implementing resource management practices that match Bay priorities such as controlling nutrient runoff or planting forest buffers along streams or even an activity that looks for links between parks and the Bay, as was the case at Harpers Ferry.

In some parks, Campbell acknowledged, it will be challenging to adopt certain Bay Program initiatives. For example, a battlefield park will have to carefully weigh a decision to plant a forest buffer where none existed during the battle.

"There are going to be places where we have a mission that is fundamental and that may preclude our ability to respond to a Bay Program initiative in a way that the Bay Program, from the outside looking in, might hope that we would," Campbell said.

But where possible, Campbell and others in the park service are encouraging individual parks to consider what part of the Bay story - whether ecological or cultural - they can tell. In part, that can help make up for the fact that no park exists to deal specifically with the nation's largest estuary.

The park service years ago studied the feasibility of establishing a single national park for the Bay, but that project fell by the wayside, largely because of the huge expense of such an endeavor.

"We thought there could be a Chesapeake Bay National Park, but that wasn't in the cards," said Andy Kardos, who worked on the study. "The Chesapeake Bay is a fantastic place. It's so rich in history and stories, I regret we never had a national park established. I think it would have been one of our premier parks. But we can still play an important role in its interpretation."

Interest in that is growing. In December, a workshop organized by Kate Bucco, a ranger at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C., brought together rangers from many parks within the watershed to exchange ideas and examples of how they can make connections to the Bay.

Many parks are already working to incorporate Chesapeake Bay themes. For some, the connection is clear. Rock Creek Park, in the District of Columbia, has developed a water quality monitoring program for school students so they can see how water quality in the creek is affected by activities within its heavily developed watershed. National Capital Parks-East, which manages much of the federally owned land in the Washington D.C. area, has in some places begun replacing manicured lawns that run up to the river's edge with "managed meadows," which attract butterflies, birds and other wildlife while reducing runoff.

A ranger at the Thomas Stone Na-tional Historic Site in Maryland created a brochure, The Noblest Bay, which gives a capsule history of the Ches-apeake. It has received wide distribution there and in other parks. The George Washington Birthplace National Historic Site - the oldest historic park in the Eastern United States - may seem an unlikely candidate for a strong Bay theme. Yet in recent years, the park has tightly woven the Bay into the story it tells visitors.

"What strikes you is the beautiful vistas of water that surround the park," said Karen Beppler, a ranger at the site. The 550-acre park on the Potomac River is surrounded on three sides by water, she pointed out.

In Colonial days, the river was a major highway of boat traffic. George Washington was born there because his father, John Washington, became shipwrecked there and ended up meeting his future wife. The rest is, well, history.

But the site's ties to the Bay and its resources go even deeper, Beppler said. Archaeological excavations show that long before the Washingtons showed up, the site was used by Native Americans. The evidence is in huge piles of oyster shells that were harvested at the site. It's now part of the story rangers tell at the park. Signs, funded by the Bay Program, have been put up near the river to explain changes that have taken place in the Chesapeake from pre-settlement to the present.

"By working to protect the park's historical and cultural resources, I feel I am working to protect the Bay on a daily basis, even if on a small scale," she said.

Today, park management activities seek to balance its ecological and cultural resources. Restoring the site to the way it was when George Washington was born would require cutting down hundreds of acres of trees, said park Superintendent John Donahue.

Rather than do that, he said, park rangers prefer to explain the changes that have taken place in the landscape as they tell visitors about the history of the site. After all, Donahue said, if the park strived for total authenticity, interpreters depicting slaves would be nearly naked. "You have to find a way to balance both the presentation, and the preservation, of the resources," he said.

While Campbell cautioned that parks don't want to fabricate linkages where none exist, there are many such opportunities to make connections that at first may not be obvious. For example, if it's appropriate to restore streamside forests at a site, a park may put up a sign explaining why such projects are beneficial to local streams and the Bay.

In a welcoming message to those attending the workshop, Charles Mayo, the park service's chief of interpretation and education, challenged rangers to help their parks - and the public - discover their own links to the Bay.

"The result can be a raised sensitivity, a greater degree of care and a nudge toward individual stewardship," he said.

While all parks in the watershed are "individually significant sites," he said, each is also "contributing to the protection of something larger." Visitors to the Harpers Ferry wetland exhibit get that message right away.

When they walk in the door, they are greeted by a map of the Bay watershed. A tiny dot on the map shows Harpers Ferry. On the map is an arrow with the note: "You are here."