The federal government should launch a "treasured landscape initiative" that would promote public and private efforts to preserve the most ecologically and culturally unique lands from development pressure, a new report suggests.
The effort would seek to steer more federal land protection funds to the watershed and could eventually lead to a new national park, national forest, wildlife refuge, marine sanctuary or other federally protected areas around the Bay.
Federal agencies would also assist land conservation organizations with their efforts, and provide incentives to landowners and state and local governments to protect priority lands and create new opportunities for public access.
But the draft report on land conservation and public access, developed in response to an executive order by President Barack Obama in May, cautioned that the initiative was not intended to be "sealing off wild places to remain untouched." Rather, it said the protection of these "special places" would perform a range of functions, such as protecting wildlife habitat, improving water quality, providing flood protection and representing the cultural diversity of the region.
"Although some of the Chesapeake's most important landscapes are wild, they are also places where people live work, learn and recreate," the report said. "They include family farms, working forests and waterfronts, where generations have shaped their lives around harvesting the region's bounty. They are wooded parks and water trails, quaint towns, urban green spaces, and historic homesteads and battlefields."
Landscapes of ecological importance, the report said, could include large contiguous tracts of forests, riparian or other corridors with natural land cover that link important habitats; streams and rivers important for rare species or migrating fish or large bottom areas of the Bay that provide important habitats.
Landscapes of cultural importance would help tell the story of human relationships to a particular place over time that are unique to the Chesapeake region. Those include places associated with historically significant events or people, archaeological sites, sites important to Native Americans, or places that characterize a significant way of life in the Bay region such as large tracts of economically valuable forests, historically productive farmlands with prime soils or traditional fishing communities.
One needed action is surveying the region for important areas-especially those related to cultural heritage-so that conservation efforts can be prioritized, the report said. "We know a lot about places that are of significance for the ecological values," said John Maounis, superintendent of the National Park Service's Chesapeake Bay Office, who led the report team. "We don't know enough about those places that are important for these other values."
He said the greatest conservation opportunities "may be offered in places that are significant both for their ecological as well as their cultural values."
For example, Maounis said, a recent study found that ecologically important areas near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge were also important sites for Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. That combination led to support from a diverse group of people for legislation that would establish Tubman National Historic Park.
With about 1.5 million new people arriving in the watershed every decade, important landscapes are under increasing pressure, the report said. The region loses about 55 square miles of forest a year as well as 90,000 acres of farmland.
"Humans are taking up more space on the landscape, converting open green spaces and places of cultural significance into paved and developed environments that will not return to their original state," the report said.
While about 18 percent of the land in the watershed, or about 7.3 million acres, is permanently protected from development, hundreds of thousands of additional acres are vulnerable. It said another 2 million acres may merit some form of protection.
The report calls for coordinating an array of federal programs to protect landscapes. Lands could be protected through easements or other landowner agreements or, in some cases, the purchase of properties from willing sellers.
The initiative could result in new or expanded national parks and wildlife refuges; it was even suggested that a new national forest related to the Bay could be established. Federal programs not currently used in the Bay or its watershed, such as marine sanctuaries or the Wild and Scenic River designation should be considered, the report said.
It suggested that a portion of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which receives royalties from offshore drilling operations and is a major funding source for federal land purchases, could be steered to the Bay watershed.
"Keeping large pieces of the Bay's landscape intact will maintain the region's treasured sense of place, its working farms and forests and irreplaceable ecosystems," said David O'Neill, president of the Friends of the John Smith Chesapeake Trail. "It will keep the Chesapeake in the Chesapeake."
O'Neill said a similar initiative, the Great Outdoor Colorado program, has conserved more than 850,000 acres of riverfront and mountain land in that state. It was championed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was then a U.S. senator.
The nonprofit organization is dedicated to helping preserve significant landscapes along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
It, and other river water trails, could serve as a focal point for conservation efforts. Many areas along rivers are ecologically significant and, because they were avenues for transportation and settlement, they were important for Native Americans and the region's earliest settlers.
River corridors and water trails also offer the opportunity to improve public access to tributaries and the Chesapeake.
Places where people can access the Bay are urgently needed, the report said, adding that promoting access throughout the region should be a priority. It called for federal agencies to review landholdings along the Chesapeake with an eye toward establishing new opportunities for access.
Less than 2 percent of the 11,600-mile shorelines of the Chesapeake and its tidal tributaries are publicly accessible.
Providing more opportunities to interact with the Bay and its tributaries, as well as the stories related to them, is ultimately important for protection and restoration efforts, Maounis said.
"It is a way that is going to engage more people, and I think that is one of the important things here," he said. "The more people we can have engaged, the better off we are going to be."