Within the next few months, Bay region visitors and residents will see the first signs — literally — of new “gateways” that will lead them to the places, and tell them the stories, that make the Chesapeake unique.

The National Park Service recently unveiled a vision for its Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Initiative, a network of linked natural, cultural and historic sites to help people learn about, and gain access to, the Bay.

A draft framework for the network was distributed at a Feb. 28 conference that attracted more than 200 people, most of whom were representatives of sites that may join the network, local groups interested in developing water trails, or state and local government resource and tourism officials.

The plan does not say what places should be part of the network — participation is voluntary — or call for the development of new sites. Rather, it calls for packaging existing sites around a series of Bay themes to make them easier to visit and understand.

Signs, maps and brochures will guide tourists along designated scenic drives which link historic sites, wetlands, working Bay communities — the whole collage of places that make the Bay special.

The initiative represents the Park Service’s most direct involvement with the Chesapeake, but it will not directly manage any sites beyond existing Park Service units. Instead, it will help coordinate the network and use its expertise to help individual sites better tell their “story” about the Bay, and how each is linked to other places around the Chesapeake. For instance, visitors to a historic site may learn how its development was linked to a nearby natural area.

Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, who sponsored the legislation creating the Gateways initiative, likened the network to a “string of pearls” around a necklace. “We’ve come to appreciate that public interest and involvement are absolutely critical to the success of this restoration project,” he said at the conference. “But discovering the Bay — actually reaching the Bay — is more difficult than many assume.”

The Gateways network will not only help improve both physical and intellectual access to the Bay, it is intended to help stir interest in the Chesapeake restoration effort. In fact, some sites are expected to give visitors an opportunity for hands-on restoration work.

John Berry, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, told conference participants that they needed to work together to fulfill the framework’s broad vision and excite the public about the Bay and its resources.

While the Park Service is a partner in other efforts that link different sites over broad areas to tell a story — such as the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Oregon National Historic Trail — “not one of those models is big or bold enough to encompass what is before you today,” Berry said. “We need a comprehensive plan to link that string of pearls. With each of us going our own way, we’re never going to get there.”

The Gateways framework was developed after a series of hearings conducted during the winter and with participation from the Bay Program, state officials and nonprofit groups, including the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

The draft framework would concentrate Gateway sites in a core area that includes the Eastern Shore and the tidal areas of the Western Shore. That “Heart of the Bay” area would be divided into six regions, each of which would have one or two “gateway hubs.” These hubs would would be the primary locations for orienting people to the entire network and introducing visitors to broad Bay themes.

Within each region would be several information centers located in smaller communities that offer visitor services and are close to particular Bay resources. They would provide specific information about sites in that particular region, as well as road, trail and water links to those sites.

Within each region, there would be many “gateway sites” which would include parks, refuges, museums, historic sites or districts, resource-based recreation sites, historic seaports, natural areas and other interpretive facilities that are located at or near the Bay or its tidal tributaries.

The framework envisions a Baywide driving route, identified with signs and maps, that would connect all six regions, gateway hubs and key gateway sites. Within a particular region, there may be separate driving or biking routes as well. In some cases, routes may be established to follow a specific Bay theme.

Complementing the Gateways sites, the framework calls for a network of water trails, both within individual regions, and also stretching beyond the tidal waters and into the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed.

To help make the gateways vision a reality, the Park Service is distributing $400,000 for demonstration grants this year. The grants will help improve access to or restore sites, develop hiking and water trails, and improve interpretative efforts that communicate Bay themes.

President Clinton has called for spending $1.25 million on the program next year. The application deadline for this year’s grants is April 14.

Any site that is awarded a grant automatically becomes part of the Gateways network. In addition, a nomination process will be established to review the merits of places that want to become part of the network, but do not need grant money at this time.

Among the benefits of participating in the network are inclusion in network maps and guides, use of the network logo and signs, inclusion in a Gateways and Water Trails Network web site, and eligibility for future technical and financial assistance from the Park Service.

The logo — along with the first Gate ways sites — are expected to be announced in late spring, said Jonathan Doherty, Gateways’ project manager for the Park Service. “There’s a lot of interest out there, and a lot of interest in participating.”

Signs could begin going up later this year. A widely distributed Gateways map is planned, but not until there is a “critical mass” of participating sites, he said. Infor mation about the sites will be available on the Gateways’ internet web site this summer.

It is not known how many sites will be incorporated into the network, but the Gateways framework clearly anticipates that much of the network will be in place within five years.

The Draft Framework for Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network, and information about the grants program, is available on the internet at: www.chesapeakebay.net/gateways.htm